'Julie & Julia' offers a visual feast for foodies

Karl Wells
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"You are the butter to my bread, and the breath to my life." With those words, Paul Child, husband of the larger than life, peculiar speaking, doyenne of culinary arts in America, Julia Child, expressed his love for a remarkable spouse - the six-foot plus woman with whom millions of foodies have also been in love from the first time we saw her defiantly flipping an omelette, or rolling a Bouche de Noel on television. She was the first successful and widely known television cook - having begun her first series, "The French Chef," in the 1960's. Because of that television exposure and also because of her unusual speech pattern, alternating from a high to low-pitched warble, this unlikely television star became a favourite target for sketch comedians and impressionists. Her two-word tag at the end of each programme became her signature, "Bon appetit!"

"You are the butter to my bread, and the breath to my life." With those words, Paul Child, husband of the larger than life, peculiar speaking, doyenne of culinary arts in America, Julia Child, expressed his love for a remarkable spouse - the six-foot plus woman with whom millions of foodies have also been in love from the first time we saw her defiantly flipping an omelette, or rolling a Bouche de Noel on television. She was the first successful and widely known television cook - having begun her first series, "The French Chef," in the 1960's. Because of that television exposure and also because of her unusual speech pattern, alternating from a high to low-pitched warble, this unlikely television star became a favourite target for sketch comedians and impressionists. Her two-word tag at the end of each programme became her signature, "Bon appetit!"

Dan Aykroyd will always be remembered for his hilarious "Saturday Night Live" parody of a Julia Child cooking lesson on boning a duck. Julia, as played by Aykroyd, cuts herself and then proceeds to treat the incident as a small inconvenience or minor mishap, as torrents of blood spout uncontrollably from her (Aykroyd's) ultimately fatal wound. The real Julia loved Aykroyd's performance.

Nora Ephron's film, "Julie & Julia," contains the Aykroyd sketch and it's still incredibly funny. There are other very funny moments in this new movie as well. Like the scene where Meryl Streep, as Julia, is discovered, in the kitchen of their Paris apartment, by her husband Paul, played with appropriate understatement by Stanley Tucci. She's been chopping onions for ages and is found, knife still in hand, slicing to beat the band, next to the biggest pile of chopped onions I've ever seen. She tells him she hasn't been taken seriously by the other (male) students at Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School and is determined to show them that she can compete with the best of them. (Practice makes perfect.)

Tucci's incredulous expression is priceless as he slowly retreats from his wife, and the pile of onions.

Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, the New York blogger who became famous for making all 524 recipes in Child's famous cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in just one year. In another humorous scene Powell ends up, flat on her back on the kitchen floor, an emotional wreck from the stress of the self-inflicted challenge.

She's inconsolable until her husband Eric (Chris Messina) tells her a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor is on the phone and wants to talk with her. Suddenly the waterworks stop, she leaps to her feet and chats away with the reporter as if nothing just happened.

Two women

Essentially, "Julie & Julia" is about two women, their relationships with their spouses and a search for personal fulfilment.

It's a very well-crafted marriage of two stories based on the books "My Life in France" by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme and "Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously" by Julie Powell.

In 1948, Child finds herself somewhat adrift and searching for a career in Paris where her diplomat husband has been posted.

In 2004, Powell is a Queens, New York community worker trying to find fulfillment outside her nine-to-five cubicle existence.

The answer for Child turns out to be learning to cook and an eight-year struggle to create and sell "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

For Powell, who longs to be a fulltime writer, it's the challenge of blogging daily about her quest to make all of Julia's recipes in one year.

Part of me wishes this first feature film about Julia Child had only been about Julia Child.

Her appetite for life was large and she spent much of her time satisfying that appetite. There is more than enough about Child to make a brilliantly entertaining film. Child deserves her own movie.

However, that said, "Julie & Julia" is a wonderful film that Julia fans, foodies and many others will love. Filmmaker and screenwriter Ephron ("Silkwood," "Heartburn," "When Harry Met Sally") did a commendable job of making the stories of the two very different protagonists one seamless narrative.

It does sag a bit in the middle (like a soufflÉ that's been left to cool too long) and you're wondering when Powell will reach the finish line and start paying more attention to her long suffering husband, Eric.

Early in "My Life in France" Julia Child describes the episode that triggered her love of French food and her desire to learn how to make it. After arriving in France she and Paul are dining at a restaurant on sole meuniere.

She writes, "The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvellously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection."

This scene is lovingly recreated at the beginning of Ephron's "Julie & Julia."

The camera lingers in close-up on the delectable sole and then finds Julia in ecstasy as she experiences culinary perfection for the first time.

Streep conveys the joy of the moment beautifully.

Ephron has made food a character in this movie. "Julie & Julia" is full of wonderful food shots, the kind we love to savour when flipping through the pages of Gourmet Magazine.

Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt clearly has an eye for food but takes as much care in composing other shots for "Julie & Julia."

The result is a rich tapestry of images, enhanced by the superb art direction and set decorating of Ben Barraud and Susan Bode Tyson respectively. Child's Parisian neighbourhood, her home at 81 Rue de l'Universite, the kitchenware, dining ware, the bistros, salons, restaurants and dress of 1948 are represented faithfully. The entire film has a wonderful visual authenticity about it.

Poignant

The most poignant scene in "Julie & Julia," played very effectively by Adams, is toward the end of the film. Julie takes a call from a reporter in California. At the time Julia Child was retired and living in Santa Barbara.

The reporter is looking for a comment from Powell about Julia Child's negative and dismissive reaction to her blogging project.

Julie is devastated to hear the news and declines to comment.

She hangs up the phone convinced that her idol absolutely hates her. She seeks comfort and sympathy from Eric who consoles her and convinces her that the Julia "in her head" is the important Julia, not the one in Santa Barbara.

I suspect the real Julia Child was upset by the fact that on her blog Powell did criticize some of the recipes in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

At one point, as we see in the film, Powell writes about her unsuccessful attempt to make one of the recipes. It was a recipe Child apparently indicated was easy.

Powell's blog response was, "The bitch lied." From what I've learned about Julia Child she would not have appreciated the irreverent humour. She most likely would have been incensed by it.

Apart from the aforementioned sagging midsection of "Julie & Julia" and the need for tighter editing, Ephron has made a fine movie.

Her screenplay was engaging and entertaining. (Let's face it she's a master of her craft.) The dialogue, especially between the spouses, was emotional and real. All of the actors did the script justice.

Streep deserves special thanks for having the nerve to take on the role of Julia Child. Child was so well known, her mannerisms and speech pattern so ingrained in us, it would not have made sense for Streep to play her without attempting to reproduce Julia's sound, inflection and affectations. She did and carried it off as only a talent of her stature could.

"Julie & Julia" is destined to become one of the classic foodie films alongside "Big Night," "Babette's Feast" and "Mostly Martha" that will be watched over and over in years to come by folk who love great food and good eating.

I think that's something Julia Child would have understood perfectly. Bon appetit!

Karl Wells is a recipient of the Canadian Culinary Federation Sandy Sanderson Award for Communications and a Restaurant Panellist with EnRoute Magazine. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School, Christian Science Monitor, Gourmet Magazine EnRoute Magazine

Geographic location: California, America, Paris France New York Queens Santa Barbara Parisian

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