Julie & Julia

There’s a telling moment about the three quarters of the way into Julie & Julia, one that puts the entire film into perspective. Without this moment, it would be a bore. For we already know the story of its two main characters: Julia Child, upon returning from France, will become a household name; and Julie Powell, blogging about her crazed experiment to cook 524 recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, will make a name for herself as well, becoming a best-selling author and even the subject of a major Hollywood motion picture.

Which is not to suggest that these stories hold no interest in themselves. There is, after all, a certain pleasure in seeing Meryl Streep’s habitation of that famous persona, and in learning about the actual life behind the iconic figure she was to become. There is also a certain fascination in following the emotional ups-and-downs associated with Julie’s mad adventure, including the minor tragedies and triumphs of her life in the kitchen.

But despite what we already know about these two women and what we come to learn about them during the course of the film, the question remains: why embark on such an experiment in the first place? Why would Julie turn Julia into an obsession, making each and every recipe in that massive tome the primary objective of her daily existence?

As the film opens, we are provided one answer to that question. Julie tells her husband that her life has no focus, that she’s been unable to finish anything. The fact that she’s uninspired and drained by her post-9/11 job answering phone calls on behalf of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation speaks as much to the lifelessness of modern bureaucracy as to her own condition. Her single accomplishment – writing a novel – has gone unrecognized and unpublished. Brunch with her “successful” friends only makes her feel like more of a failure. Even her mother is quick to dismiss this new undertaking as just another one of Julie’s “projects,” one that will most likely come to naught.

And yet, it is only after we get more than halfway through this tale that we discover another side of Julie’s conundrum. Her husband, tired of the having their life colonized by this culinary pilgrimage, and exhausted by her innumerable breakdowns, finally gives voice to an exasperation that had been silently brewing: he allows himself, finally, to vent about her indulgence in what can only be seen as a narcissistic exercise, refusing to be the “saint” she wants him to be, since taking on that moniker merely asks that he continue to tolerate what she was unable to stand in herself. Stunned, Julie will acknowledge the self-involvement at the heart of her attachment to Julia, but will also note how she’s “finally totally engaged in something …”

Therein lies the rub.

And this is where the contrast with Julia Child takes on an edifying contrast. For even though not a word is spoken of the matter, it’s clear that she’s grief-stricken over the child she’s unable to bear. It’s also clear that she (as well as her sister) have struggled with, and overcome, the loss of confidence that can come with being large women, much less being seen as loud, opinionated, and unfeminine.

In other words, we learn a whole lot more about Julia Child – about what moves her as well as what haunts her – than we are ever allowed to learn about Julie. This may have been a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers or, perhaps, a carryover from the book upon which the film is based. But this absence points us to a gaping hole, perhaps one with which Julie was struggling herself. For coming into one’s own, like Julia Child, is no small achievement, whether it be in the 1950s or the beginning of the twenty-first century.

It’s quite appropriate, then, that the film closes, not with Julie, but with Julia, as we – along with her husband – share in the delight of her (first) project’s completion. For not only did she learn a new skill relatively late in life, and neither was the writing of books her major life’s accomplishment. Rather, she discovered the alchemy’s secret for transforming Mercury’s absence into Gold, became a teacher, and found a way to share her gifts with others.

No wonder Julie wanted to live in her shadow,
not quite realizing she was a good egg, too.


~ by mistified on November 16, 2009.

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