Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Julie and Julia:" Not Really About Food

Bon appetit! The ringingly melodic inflection of Julia Child is almost a self-parody, but when my friend appeared at my door today with the sing-song greeting, we collapsed into peals of knowing laughter. Last week we went to a screening of "Julie and Julia."

What a great movie. I kept hearing my friend's guffaws. She kept glancing over to see the tears sliding down my cheeks. Together, we're an extremely emotional duo.

The film is about several things: finding one's voice, one's direction, one's passion. Two loving marriages that deepen with time and communication. Actually, most of the film is about communicating, and the medium is words but also food. There's perhaps a bit too much explaining the emotional significance of ingredients and preparation, when simply watching the women's interaction with it might have better sufficed. But Julie (Amy Adams), the blogger, uses her words not to describe as a picture, but as part of the therapeutic process of conquering a task, of surmounting obstacles and meeting a deadline. Julie is a writer; Julia (Meryl Streep) is a cook, a connoisseur. Julie is self-centered, as bloggers tend to be; Julia is product centered, and because of it comes across as the better-rounded, more observant and perhaps more romanticized of the two.

After all, she lives in Paris. And revels in the locale, immersing herself in its sensual offerings. Julie lives in Queens over a pizza store and works at an insurance provider; she uses food almost as a means of negating her world.

But this film is, to me, as much about time and times as it is about the characters. I wasn't alive for post-War Paris, though when I finally came there, I was as enthralled as Julia was, wandering to all the sights in the Michelin Green Guide, a process of several weeks. But this was before cell phones and Internet and digital cameras. Long before 9-11, the event that changed America's perception of itself and thrust the film's Julie into her job filing insurance claims for its victims. The Paris of today is a changed milieu, rocked by Muslim riots, and immigrants wearing Islamic garb increasingly populating its suburbs. Julia experienced its quaint shops within the protection of a diplomatic context that allowed her to experiment luxuriously while finding her calling.

Julie lives in a time when such isolation is impossible. Competition, thanks to women's liberation, is intense and early. Julie's friends with their obnoxious cell phones and Blackberries drive her into a funk, but also motivate her--to the new, narcissistic medium of blogging--as a means to advancement. This is not about "finding something to dooooo," as Julia considers her dilettantism; it's about validating herself. Nowadays, women cannot be complete as supportive wives; we must also achieve in stellar careers. The contrast between the two women's eras struck me: Julia serendipitiously discovered her calling and was thrilled to see it develop; Julie began with a self-definition as a writer, and felt finally legitimized when her blog led to a feature in the New York Times. Of the two time periods' mindsets, Julia's is the more appealing. But I identify more with Julie's; pity.

Reviews of this movie often mention that while both women enjoy loving marriages, food provides each a menage et tois. I disagree. While Meryl Streep does a marvelous "mmmmm!", this is not a cookbook shoot or her TV show. The sights center on the women's worlds, not their pans and casseroles, and I'm glad for it, since food is intimate, involving fragrance as much as sight and taste. And most audiences consider a camera's caress of beaten egg a bit too slow.

Now, I get down and dirty with food a lot. I prepare Shabbat meals, fancy dinners and lunches for tablefuls of 12 guests, just about every week. I make challah from scratch, nearly every week. Meals start with wine, bread, soup, vegetarian main course, three side dishes and desserts...and must be prepared the day before, no last minute cooking. I laugh every year when mags feature spreads coaching Thanksgiving prep--for me, Thanksgiving's a breeze, because I can actually turn on my oven!

Julie's deadline of making 524 recipes in a year is hardly daunting to the woman who makes probably a thousand more, has complicated rules about heating them up, and serves them in her best clothes. I was lucky this week; my daughter's friend was visiting and volunteered to check the broccoli. If you know what that means, you're probably smiling.

So Julie and Julia was more about finding identity than food, the handy device that enabled the story. The ultimate question must be--whose life contained more joy? Julie's story continues, and I know little about it, but from Nora Ephron's snapshot and Meryl Streep's portrayal, I'd rather emulate Julia's gusto for life outside herself than Julie's self-centered ruminating, any day.


  1. Great review- I can't wait to see it!

  2. BonJOUR, dearest Bright! Great insightful blog post! And indeed, I would not have enjoyed the movie half as much without you next to me, also savoring every sight, sound, and sense. Hey, I didn't even know you were checking me out checking you out in between laughter and non-laughter.

    For me, the movie personified the joy of cooking, joie de vivre, zest to da max. Not to take anything away from Julie (although it's a bit disturbing to read reviews which seem to diss her; her young life in a different, difficult time seemed rightfully full of angst and lower self-esteem, so I feel she had more to "work through" in some ways than did Julia) ... but Julia in many ways started out larger than life, was older, was more financially secure, didn't really HAVE to work to earn a living, and seemed generally more grounded.

    That said, there was a lot to learn from both Js in this movie treatment. I do dabble in cookery myself, but I now feel compelled to read Julia's books about her life in France and experiences honing her art. And for my next trick: bouef bourguignon, anyone?

  3. Neither my husband nor I are foodies. Based on your review, I'd want to see it. Would it be cruel and unusual to subject my man to this? Or would I owe him 'big time' if I have him go with me?