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TIFF 2021 Review: Julia – “A worthy celebration of an amazing woman’s life”

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

Do NOT watch the new documentary Julia on an empty stomach.  Though likely you’re going to feel compelled to make a roast, or find that recipe for boeuf bourguignon either way.  Oscar-nominated directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG) provide yet another engaging profile of an important icon, Julia Child.  It’s so full of sumptuous and delectable food footage that growling stomachs will be sure to accompany any viewing.  Yet there was more to this remarkable woman than just the food she cooked, as we discover when the filmmakers take us on a fascinating journey through her life.

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Born in 1912 to a conservative family, Julia Child skirted convention.  At a time when women didn’t really have a career and instead were considered “broodmares” (Child’s own words), she attended Smith College and stood up for herself against her father who wanted her to marry. She was pining for adventure and ended up enlisting during World War II, working for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA).  The adventure, therefore, followed as she was sent to Sri Lanka.  It was here she met her future husband Paul.

Eventually stationed in France together, it was here that Julia fell in love with the world of food, and especially French cooking.  “One taste of that food, and I never looked back,” she stated in old interview footage.  She was a woman who invaded the “boys club” of the Cordon Bleu culinary school, and eventually went on to publish “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with her friends Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle.  It was in 1962, while on a television show in Boston promoting the book that she demonstrated how to make a simple omelet.  The reaction from viewers was so positive that the show The French Chef was born, making French cooking accessible at a time when convenience food like Spam, Jello and Swanson frozen dinners were all the rage.

The documentary continues through her entire life, and as she worked basically until the time of her death at age 91, there is plenty of ground to cover in this film’s 95 minute run time.  As Child died in 2004, they dig deep into archives, using footage from her television series but also her various appearances on talk shows.  The filmmakers utilize correspondence of Julia’s and also Paul’s to gain access to their subject’s innermost thoughts at the time.  Coupled with interviews from friends and fellow chefs, there is ample information and perspective to keep momentum in the film’s pacing.

Julia Child was not perfect, in fact she strived to show people that mistakes were how you learned.  And indeed the filmmakers also highlight her own evolution over the years, especially regarding her views on feminism and sexuality.  A huge supporter of Planned Parenthood, and eventually also gay rights, Child was steadfast in her convictions, and didn’t concern herself with the backlash that followed.  She adapted and learned.  All she ever wanted to do was inspire chefs at home to cook French food, to master the basics.  But she inspired so much more, competing against ageism, not even finding fame until past age 50.  She also competed against sexism in the kitchen, opening up possibilities for women who had previously found themselves locked out of the food world.  This film is a worthy celebration of an amazing woman’s life and demonstrates just how much Julia Child influenced, not only the culinary world, but pop culture itself.  Bon appétit!

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