The world’s fascination with Julia Child — arguably the world’s first celebrity chef, and certainly the first to make a career out of cooking up both an assortment of beloved television shows and a bestselling lineup of books — hasn’t abated much since Child passed away in 2004. By 2009, Meryl Streep was playing her on-screen in Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia,” which threaded Child’s later years alongside the fraught young adulthood of New Yorker Julie Powell. Later this year, HBO Max will debut a full-scale miniseries about the Francophile, with British actress Sarah Lancashire playing Child. Before that series, however, there’s yet another entry — also, like the HBO Max series, entitled “Julia” — a tasty if somewhat thin new documentary from Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who excel at putting the life stories of remarkable women on the big screen (see: their Oscar nominee “RBG”).
So, is there enough meat on the bone to engender so much material on just one woman? Yes, and then some. And while Cohen and West’s tasty, wide-ranging documentary manages to cover the high points of Child’s crazy life — to say she did some living before she even picked up a copper pot is a massive understatement — it also can’t quite satisfy a deeper hunger for Child information. At just 95 minutes, Cohen and West hit the bullet points of Child’s life, much of it told through her own archival interviews and personal letters and diary entries, but bigger questions linger. It’s a delicious meal, but it often feels a touch undercooked.
Cohen and West cleverly weave together archival footage of Child (much of it from her best-known show, “The French Chef”) alongside newly filmed sequences of some of her beloved recipes being cooked up (they are, in a word, scrumptious, with a roasted chicken being nearly pornographic). The apparent ease by which the documentary unfolds might actually work to obscure the hard work that went into it: it’s rife with never-before-seen footage and photos, private writings, and a slew of stellar talking heads (including fellow chefs like José Andrés, Ina Garten, and Marcus Samuelsson, along with some of Child’s own family and friends).
But with all that insight, tougher questions are often asked and not fully answered. What are we to make of Child’s somewhat complicated relationship with her father? Or her cooking partner Simone Beck (or, as is rarely mentioned, the duo’s other partner on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Louisette Bertholle, who is scarcely mentioned)? What about her struggles to conceive and her eventual brush with cancer? Her romance with husband Paul Child is at the film’s center, but Paul’s own somewhat secretive life is given short shift. And, as the film moves toward its final moments, what are we to make of Child’s resistance to the new wave of cooking so many feel she helped usher into the world?
“Julia” touches (and, yes, mostly just touches) on all that and more, but its focus on Child as someone revolutionary, charming, flirty, complicated, and hungry remains its juicy focal point. Throughout the doc, claims for Child’s impact as a “cultural force” are compellingly expounded on, but it’s Child herself who really sells that idea. Even before she was “Julia Child,” the woman just felt iconic. Cohen and West kick off the film off with Child’s charm and humor front and center, telling the oft-told tale of Child’s first TV appearance, when she used a hot plate to make a perfect omelette, sealing her career with one swish of the pan.
Child’s career in cooking was something of a surprise, and for a few reasons: she grew up in a rarefied Pasadena household where (most of her pals assume, at least) meals were cooked up by a family chef (lots of hearty stuff, mashed potatoes and the like) and came of age in a time when America was hellbent on the power of “convenience foods” (TV dinners and all sorts of horrible “salads” packed into Jello). She went to college at a time in which she notes, through archival voiceover, women were not expected to have careers, mostly being viewed as “brood mares.” That didn’t appeal to Child.
The documentary zips through Child’s incredible post-college life — including a stint in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II (where she met Paul), meal enough for its own film — before finally landing her and Paul in France, where even Child thinks her life really began, mostly thanks to the transformative power of French cooking. You cannot possibly blame her, and as she and Beck (AKA Simca) attempt to craft what will become their opus cookbook, Child’s life purpose becomes crystal clear.
Cohen and West make quick work of contextualizing Child’s impact on the world of food, aided by those talking heads and a real sense of history. Child was a boundary-breaker, even if her relationship with feminism — one of the better-handled big questions in the latter half of the film — was finicky. Mostly, she was a singular person always compelled by the possibility of evolution, someone who mastered her fundamentals and then spun them off to make her own unique recipes. She was a proper chef, truly, and a special one. But once you sink your teeth into the legacy of Child, you’re only going to want much more to chew on.
“Julia” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.