Julie & Julia's Real Star: Mastering The Art of French Cooking
The conversation surrounding the release of Julie & Julia has fluttered around plenty of topics: this is a movie about old media versus new; this is a movie about women being strong in the kitchen; this is a movie about the transformative power of cooking; this is a movie about Julia Child and Julie Powell — no no no, it's all wrong. Furthermore, the movie is not, as its tagline so cloyingly notes, "based on two true stories." It's is one story, one thread, unbroken: This is a movie about a book.
In a certain sense, that's a trivial observation — of course this is a movie about a book. Child wrote it, Powell cooked from it. But I mean this in a much deeper sense: the thing that ties these two women's lives together is the story of the book, how it came to be and what it wound up doing with itself. One without the other is like a coming of age tale without an epilogue, or a superhero without a backstory, and the complete picture is so much greater than either half alone: both the fact of the book's importance (on which Powell's story hinges) and the why of it (Child's story — or is it vice versa?) reinforces the other's authority.
Reality versus what's in our heads
The story in Julie & Julia isn't a terribly suspenseful one — there's a lot of cooking, a little bit of marital strife, and everyone has a happy ending. Still, there is one moment of almost unbearable tension (for those of you who don't know where this is going: spoiler alert): Julie Powell gets a call from a reporter who has spoken to Julia Child about Powell's blog. Powell learns that (as we've discussed on this very site) Child was disdainful of Powell's whole operation. It's a crushing scene, built on an antecedent sixty minutes of Powell adoringly chattering to anyone who'll listen about Julia this and Julia that, Julia's humor and Julia's perseverence and Julia's wedding.
But the tragedy's not just that the real-life Child is a cranky technophobic old lady. It's the realization that the real Julia Child is not the same woman who lives inside Powell's copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (buy at Amazon). The thing with writing a cookbook (I assume; I've never written one) is that the author doesn't have readers in the traditional, passive sense. Instead, she has doers. People who actually go out and do what they're told to do. And whenever you follow instructions, you're acquiescing — however slightly — to an authority figure. Someone to credit for your successes, to blame for your failures. The thing is, with a book that you go back to time and again, each visit its own kind of communion with its culinary philosophy, the book's authority takes on a life (and a soul) of its own. (If you missed that point as it was subtly making itself, don't worry: two seconds later it's made abundantly clear by Powell's husband, who calms his wife by saying that what matters is the sort of Julia Child spirit-animal that Powell carries around inside her, not the actual woman herself.)
It's all about the book
This moment where Book Julia and Real Julia clash so forcefully isn't just the strongest in the story — it's also the moment that sheds light on the rest of the film's surprising superficiality. It's not just Meryl Streep's stellar acting or the allure of postwar Paris that makes the Julia Child parts of the movie so much more riveting than Julie Powell's share; it's that the parts of the movie that aren't about the book fall flat, and everything Child does is about the book.
If writer/director Nora Ephron had fought down her instinct to film a vague, feel-good celebration of womanness, and instead really let the story linger on the tension of a legacy that grows larger, more pervasive, and more powerful than the individual who gave rise to it, Julie & Julia could have been a masterpiece. Of course, it's not one, though it's not half bad. Whether you come out of the movie rooting for Julie or for Julia (and really, the more I think about it, I think it's impossible to wind up rooting for both women), the one thing that's not in question is that Mastering the Art of French Cooking is an indelible, unassailable cornerstone of culinary literature.