August 10, 2009


JULIE and JULIA: A nice but very frustrating little film Where is the (French) meat?

Stéphane, 2 days ago you asked me over the phone if I had seen Julie and Julia. I have to admit that I did not want to see this film, for several reasons: I was afraid that it would be focusing too much on another of those Streep vocal circus numbers. I was not that excited about the idea of watching another Hollywood fantasy about an American in Paris. From what I read there would be too much time devoted to Julie’s agenda, solo gig, her own and her husband’s frustrations, and not enough to the ascent of Mrs. Child as a culinary expert and to her extraordinary free-thinking and “modern” personality. After all, in the repressive times of the fifties in the U.S, she was a breath of fresh air and a real free spirit. No wonder she loved Paris so much. And last but not least, I have never been that impressed by the talents of Nora Ephron as a film director.

But Yesterday, when we had a very a muggy 93 degrees day in Chicago, It was too hot in our small kitchen to cook the ratatouille that I had planned to do with the vegetables I had bought the day before at the farmer’s market in Evanston. So the alternative was to go see a movie. But our personal choices were limited to 2 bleak films, an Austrian ‘noir”, Revanche, that both previews and reviews encouraged us to see, and a tense war drama from the very talented Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. So, since we felt like seeing something lighter, we thought: Why not Julia after all. At least it will be interesting to see how they reconstituted the Paris of the late forties early fifties, and there surely will be some fine food buying and cooking scenes to watch. And as you know your mother has been a Julia’s faithful follower since the early seventies. How many times when we ask ourselves a technical question about something we are in the mood of preparing she still announces "let see what Julia says about it" and goes to the pantry to retrieve our very tired and stained “Mastering the Art of French Cooking" And, as a blogger, food and wine consultant, and person who loves to cook, I was personally intrigued by the treatment of this story.  

The result: The film was better than we expected and we sort of enjoyed it as it is: a very traditional piece of Hollywood entertainment. But unfortunately it also had a lot of holes, superficialities, and, above all, unbalances in the script, the editing, and the actors directing, that it sometimes made some sequences almost boring or just too loose-ended to be fully enjoyed.
On the plus side: The concept of creating a parallel montage between the personal lives and the cooking experiences of Julia Child and the young blogger Julie Powell works after all in a bit more successful way than I thought it would be. We managed to progressively get used to, and from time to time interested in, the very deep differences between these two couples, the personal motivations and objectives of the two women, the support or exasperations of their respective husbands and friends, and their very different integration in their social or professional environments. The cinematography is very pleasant and astute, particularly in managing to “expand” the physical aspect of Streep. The casting of the four main actors is also quite acceptable: Stanley Tucci provides a very complex and subtle personalization of Paul Child. To me his performance is the most impressive of the whole cast. And the image that he helps projecting of their couple is quite realistic. We believe in them. The light musical score by French Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat is a perfect fit for re-creating the mood of Hollywood films taking place in Paris in the post WWII and early fifties period. The sets and costumes are, once again, good replicas of those seen and worn in the movies of that time frame. Meryl Streep performance is one of her best in recent years: pretty restrained, expressive and often touching, especially in the scene when she learns about her sister’s having a baby. Sometimes it is on the verge, but not falling into, of becoming a bit too cartoonesque. But we manage to often forget about the fact that she plays and almost accept her as Julia. And Julia’s enthusiastic persona is very nicely projected.

On the minus side: Many of the scenes between Julie and her husband are overstretched and too conventional. The sequences where she writes her blog on her computer are way too long. We wait impatiently for Julia and Paul to return, only to be often disappointed by the shortness of substance in their dialogs. There is really an unbalance in the cutting and editing of their scenes. An other factor contributing to this impression of unbalance: Even though Amy Adams is a quite charming and competent actress, and Chris Messina does a more than an adequate job as her frustrated husband, they cannot stand the comparison in terms of “on screen quality level of presence”, with a couple of old pros like Streep and Tucci. Besides the “mise en scene” (cinematic directing, camera movements, etc.) is much more elaborate in the case of the two stars. The scenes in Julie’s apartment and at her office are shot in quite a pedestrian lazy way. I was very frustrated by the minimal approach to food scenes. There are practically no sequences were you can actually feel that any actual cooking, tasting, or eating is taking place. It is quite obvious that the two actresses are not cooking themselves. And their respective ways of shopping are quite unrealistic. By the way, I wondered all the time where Julie secured the funds necessary to buy all those, sometimes very costly, food ingredients, and cooking ustensils, considering the obviously modest financial status of her household. The scenes taking place in Parisian restaurants (very probably shot entirely in studio in the U.S., since I did not notice any mention of a Parisian eatery in the credits) look and sound phony. Even the waiters do not act or speak in an authentic fashion. The French fish mongers, bakers, and butchers even less. I was particularly horrified by the depressing look of that poor "sole meuniere", (that Julia Child tasted for the first time after her arival in France, in a restaurant in Rouen, and which would become her epiphany) presented to her, whole in the pan, by a waiter. Instead of the delicate "beurre noisette" and a few specks of fresh parsley and a slice of lemon that should have been covering that delicate Dover sole, I was under the impression that the butter that surrounded that fish had been burned to a point of no return.
The food consultants must have been taking a nap at the time this scene was shot. I would have loved to have a complete sequence devoted to Julia preparing a whole dinner for her husband and to watch them at the table enjoy and discuss the whole thing. At one point when the 3 gourmandes (Child, Beck and Bertholle) have lunch on the terrace of a Parisian bistro, I thought for a split second that the front of that bistro looked like Astier’s in the 11th arrondissement, but I’m not sure. Anyway, Astier does not have any terrace. Only the boeuf bourguignon looked authentically French. But Amy Adams keeps calling it “bouff bourguignonn’’. Also I cannot believe that there were so few scenes shot in real Paris locations.

But I had a nostalgic smile on my face (in the dark) when I saw the entrance of the house where the Childs move in when they arrive in Paris: 10 rue de Seine, in the 6th arrondissement, is just a few numbers down from were we lived in that street until we moved to Chicago, and where you spent the first months of your existence Stéphane. And later on, there is a long shot of the windows of the apartment, Quai aux Fleurs in the Ile de La Cite, where I rented a room when I was a student at la Sorbonne in 1963. I found it totally ridiculous to have not cast any French actors or actresses in some of the supporting roles. This is particularly crucial for the part of Simone Beck, aka Simca. Linda Emond is a fine stage actress, but I had a very hard time accepting her, and her phony accent, as being Simone Beck. But my biggest objection is to the over-simplification in describing Julia’s personality and relation with others. This portrait lacks psychological and socio-cultural complexity. But is the film supposed to include the portrait of a hyper-dimensioned star and human being or just a sort of gimmicky montage of the separate and not even parallel itineraries of two women, who just find “something to do with their lives”, and in so doing attained celebrity status. That is the question I often asked myself. To capsulate my impressions of this movie: I think that it is an entertaining little film that would have required a tighter script, the “savoir-faire” and always very efficient directing talent of a Stanley Donen, or a Blake Edwards, and a larger budget to film more scenes on location in Paris, to have a chance to reach greatness.


  1. I thought it was entertaining, too, but yes, some of the Parisian scenes lacked authenticity. The bistro scene with Julia et al reminded me a bit of that little corner place near Rue de Ursins, behind Notre Dame. I would go to a movie for Paris scenes alone, I'm afraid.

    The scene with Streep on the phone with her sister was probably the best one in the movie.

    I also wondered how Julie could afford the ingredients. Frankly, I found her hard to like, no matter how appealing Amy Adams can be.

    The "Boof" drove me nuts.

    Why not a film on Julia Child only? The whole Julie/Julia project has always seemed a bit overrated to me.

    Oh, well, I was still hugely entertained. I will not rush out to buy the Julie/Julia cookbook, but I will re-read "My Life in Paris," which totally engrossed me three years ago.

  2. As usual, I appreciate your comments Mimi.I agree that a good film on Julia Child alone would be a plus.
    Like you I intend to read My life in Paris.
    I added a couple of lines to my post tonight about that poor sole meuniere, the way it is shown in the film... What a pity
    Anyways, it gave us lots of reasons to reminisce about good times and good food in Paris.

  3. Hi Alain, I agree with your assessment of the movie. I have always been fascinated with Julia Child and feel a movie about her alone would have been a better idea. But the reason I am commenting is to answer one of your questions. I believe Julie established a Pay Pal account on her blog for people to contribute toward purchasing her pricey ingredients. It was discussed briefly in the movie.

  4. That's right, it was! Penny, you are correct.

    Just a few years back, I had a little conversation with Kim at Dehillerin in Paris about Julia. Everyone loved her - and I think we all still do.

  5. Oh, one more thing: A week later, I still think that despite the minor drawbacks, the movie was thoroughly entertaining. And I may just buy it when it comes out on DVD.