I’m a big fan of Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG documentary from a few years ago, and I was really excited to hear the duo would be crafting a documentary about legendary chef Julia Child. I approached Julia in a similar way I did RBG, as this was a story about someone I was generally a fan of, but didn’t know as much as I’d like to. And luckily, Cohen/West are getting this in right under the wire before the public interest in Julia Child spikes again with the forthcoming HBO Max series about her life, arriving sometime next year. I can confirm that almost everything I loved about the RBG documentary is present here. Julia is a remarkably loving and warm tribute to an indisputably wholesome and iconic figure, a film equally interested in her legacy as well as what that legacy will become.
We follow the life of legendary chef Julia Child, who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu at age 42, after becoming infatuated with French cuisine, when her husband Paul’s work took the couple to Paris. We learn about Julia Child’s initial ties to the CIA, and how she had an incredibly important career before she ever became a chef. We follow her story through the publication and success of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which she had to fight like crazy to get published. We go into the time where public interest in Julia Child skyrocketed, with her PBS series The French Chef.
Julia isn’t reinventing the biographical documentary wheel, but it doesn’t have to. Julie Cohen and Betsy West possess such a specific knowledge of why this larger than life figure was so important and also what her legacy means in the present day and what it could mean moving forward. The directing duo also released a documentary about political figure Pauli Murray this year, which I will definitely write about once I see it. One could argue these documentaries are overly celebratory about their subjects, but I wouldn’t say that’s true. On one hand, these people deserve to be celebrated, and on another, it’s important we keep telling their stories, that we keep them in the stratosphere and remember why they’re important.
For instance, there’s a section in this documentary about how Child would occasionally use some distasteful language regarding people in the LGBT community, only to realize her mistakes when a close friend of hers became very ill with HIV in the mid-1980s. Following this, Child became an advocate for LGBT rights and AIDS activism. She’s a person who learned from her mistakes, and I think it’s an important decision to include this part of her story, but this also humanizes her in a very specific way. She was a flawed human being who grew and changed over the course of her life, and that’s absolutely something to celebrate.
The focus of Julia and Paul Child’s marriage reminds me a lot of how Cohen and West explored the dynamic between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband Martin. These folks are couple goals, plain and simple. And these documentaries almost play like romantic comedies as we go through the love letters exchanged between the two, and explore very telling interactions that illuminate how deeply loving these relationships were. You got a hint of this, watching Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci do this in Julie & Julia, but even I’m surprised by how accurate that depiction turned out to be.
Julia is a heartfelt and utterly delicious celebration of a legend who has remained relevant in the cultural conversation, even in the years following her death. You’ll leave with a deeper understanding, and also a deeper appreciation of Julia Child, and her body of work, and just how much agency she had over her career, and what it means that she never stopped working, right up until the very end. Julia Child was a brilliant, formidable public figure, an activist and a hold-no-prisoners businesswoman, and this is an affectionate love letter that knows exactly how important she was, is and will be. Also, do not go into this one hungry. And if you dined at a fast casual chain like I did beforehand, prepare to regret every life choice you ever made.