Interviewed on NPR last week, the director Nora Ephron, said her eagerly awaited new film is about marriage as much as it is about food. Julie and Julia presents the parallel true stories of both Julia Child’s emergence— as a chef and a cookbook writer — and that of a contemporary young Queens  woman named Julie Powell. Powell  executed all 500 or so recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days —while writing and blogging about it, holding down a full-time office job, and attempting to maintain a relationship with her husband.

Inherent in this description is one glaring discrepancy in the two stories and the times they represent: the pace of life and how much it influences women’s lives in particular. Julia Child, whose experience occupies the whole of the 1950’s as depicted here, was able to cheerfully experiment with her developing interest in cooking at her own pace, and share it with her husband, clearly contributing to their passionate partnership. Julie, her twenty-first-century counterpart, is a picture of frenzied, tormented activity throughout the film; at the end she says that the experience has been wonderfully fulfilling, and she has managed to hang on to her marriage, but that it has been repeatedly stretched to the breaking point.

There’s no question that Julia Child was ahead of her time as a working woman. During World War II, she worked for the, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. There she met Paul Child. Later, when he was stationed in Paris as a diplomat. Julia was missing her career: the film shows her casting about for “something to do.”  Determined and confident, she never seemed to question her right to work, or to try something new (despite significant discouraging remarks — discouraging remark  from French people no less, who have been known to wither even the boldest of souls!)  Her sense of herself as a person, and as a woman, seems to have been wonderfully grounded and centered.

While it can be granted that Julia Child was clearly very unusual, the contrast between her and Julie may be about something  more important than personality and talent, but may be also about the some of the difficulties women face today.

Julia had the choice “to do” something. In fact, her cookbook was originally subtitled and conceived for women who were “servantless” (which implies, joltingly to many of us, that a significant portion of American women were not “servantless!”). Julie has no such choice: the job was a given. Though there are some “class” differences between the two protagonists, I think she is fairly typical of women these days, who are  expected to hold down a job that brings in a paycheck and pursue other interests after work. (Of course, that difference seems near-erased by their echo-victory: both Julie and Julia get book deals in the end.)

Finally, it must be said that once again Meryl Streep is astonishing and such a pleasure to watch on the screen that I recommend this film for her performance alone. Many reviewers have bemoaned the fate of  the wonderful Amy Adams having to play opposite (well, alongside, since they are never in a scene together ) such a legend — but, hey, somebody has to be in a movie with Streep. I found myself thinking about the Julia Child she brought to life for days afterward, as if she were a friend that I had known and now miss. Like the character she plays, Streep has indeed mastered the art.

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  • Megan Jones March 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    I loved this movie and have seen it a few times, but I never thought of the characters as foils. I really enjoyed your point of view and it made me think. Progress is not a straight line and while women have made many strides in our society, it has not come without cost. The constant struggle to balance work with relationships with hobbies can knock the strongest of us!