Foodstuff: Much ado about Julia
Documentary explores an intimate side of the “founding mother of the American food movement”
What: “Julia” at the Aspen Film Academy Screenings
When: Dec. 12 at noon
Where: Isis Theatre
Tickets and more information: aspenfilm.org/aspen-academy-screenings-2021/
Julia, Julia, Julia. You know the one: that masterer of the art of French cooking, that pioneer of food television, that beloved character so central to the way we cook and eat that most who know Julia Child refer to her by her first name.
Which makes “Julia” a rather fitting title for Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s latest documentary, on the woman West considers something of a “founding mother of the American food movement.”
Why Julia? The better question might be “Why not?,” according to Cohen.
“This is a woman whose story is so spectacular and so groundbreaking, but also so joyous and delicious, that we thought it would be both an important story to tell and a really fun and celebratory story to tell,” Cohen said in a joint interview with West.
It’s also a story that has been told, and told, and told again, by those who knew Child and by those who have fallen in love with her. That didn’t deter Cohen and West, who saw an opportunity to approach Child’s life from a more intimate angle.
“People know about Julia in kind of superficial way, but we thought that, you know, this was an opportunity to do a deep dive into Julia’s life and from Julia’s point of view as much as possible, and also to take advantage of the opportunity to do some high end food shooting along with Julia’s story,” West said.
About that “high end food shooting”: Cohen and West’s recipe for “Julia” which combines an abundance of archival material and personal history and known storytelling with rich, resplendent recreations of Julia’s recipes that can make the viewer feel like they themselves have been fileted and fried like the sole meuniere that a chef prepares in a kitchen in Rouen for one vignette.
A sizzling wok flavors her life in China during World War II, when she and Paul worked for the Office of Strategic Services and when “food was really a sort of played a central turning point in her life story,” Cohen said. That sole meuniere (oh! that sole meuniere!) was her introduction to Gallic cuisine by way of her first-ever lunch at La Couronne in Rouen, France, which Child declared “the most exciting meal of my life.”
There are other classics too: salade Nicoise, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, boeuf bourguignon, “prepared exactly the way Julia prepared it” and filmed in such a way that “you’re seeing the food so that you feel like you can almost taste and smell it,” Cohen said.
It may well arouse more than just the gustatory senses: alongside the details of the Childs’ rich, loving and (the documentary alludes) rather sensual relationship is the making of a pear tart that is more than a little titillating, intentionally so.
West calls it the “sexy pear tart,” one that accompanies playful hints of Julia and Paul’s afternoon delights and the pleasures they enjoyed both at lunch and after it.
The directors didn’t expect they would make a film with such a saucy thread, Cohen said. Then again, they didn’t expect to find a nude photograph of Julia (taken by Paul, naturally, whose loving gaze doesn’t waver in the photographs he took of Julia nor the ones in which both of them appear).
“When you think of a woman who’s, you know, six-foot-two, not a classic beauty, has a loud, kind of wacky voice, and had her main fame — the fame for (which) she’s an icon — started when she was age 50, you might view sex as being basically off the table, especially in the movies … The parameters are still so constrained in terms of who gets to be sexual in a movie,” Cohen said.
“And giving giving Julia that part of her story, which truly was part of her life, and actually kind of fits in with the rest of the story — just the love of food, all the joie de vivre, all of the talk about sensual pleasures — it’s part of the story,” she added.
The documentary is rated PG-13, a point of pride for the directors who see this sensual side of Child and of the food she prepared as one of the more surprising aspects of a figure so well-known in the culinary world and in pop culture at large.
“In some ways, just letting that be part of Julia’s story feels like a little bit of a radical notion, and it’s one that we feel is part of what gives the film so much of its kind of liberating joyfulness,” Cohen said.
Kaya Williams is a reporter for the Aspen Times and the Snowmass Sun who audibly gasped while watching “Julia” when that near-translucent fish started sizzling in butter for the sole meuniere. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.