I never thought it would come to this—that I would actually be holding up legendary French TV-chef Julia Child as a model of strong-willed womanhood. Yet that’s the only conclusion I can come to after seeing Julie & Julia, a film that traces the quasi-parallel lives of Julia Child and Julie Powell, a thirty-year-old New Yorker who decides to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And to do so within a year’s time. And to blog about it.
The film is in many ways a meditation on what it means to be an epigone. A middle-aged American wife in Paris in the late fifties, Child brazenly takes on the task of learning French cooking despite the myriad slights and obstructions put in her way by various French people. Brushing them aside, she learns to cook and, in writing about it, makes French cuisine her own.
Julie’s talent, on the other hand, lies mostly in following Child's recipes, and so she’s devastated when she hears that the actual Julia Child might have a certain disdain for her cooking-and-blogging adventure. If Child can be said to translate French cooking into Americanese, then Julie is more like a calligrapher—faithfully reproducing the art of the master without changing a word.
Another way of putting it would be to say that the two women’s lives are not so much parallel as inverted. Child takes on French cooking because she is looking for something to do (“What am I to doooooo? What am I to dooooo?” she trills to her husband sonorously), and in the process invents a new identity for herself. Powell, on the other hand, is primarily looking for a new identity (“I’m not a writer, I’m not a writer,” she insistently whines to her husband), and the cooking project is something she invents for herself to do in the process. The directions of the two women’s lives couldn’t be more different.