Reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival.

There were cookbooks before Julia Child penned Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, but not like this. And I’m sure there was someone cooking on camera before Julia made a perfect French omelet on WGBH, but not like this. Julia changed the game. When Jean-Luc Godard looked back on the history of cinema, one figure stood tall, Orson Welles: “All of us will always owe him everything.”

So it is with Julia and every celebrity chef that has followed in her footsteps. What footsteps they were. At 6 feet, 2 inches, Julia was not someone to be brushed aside. When she signed up for cooking classes at Paris’ famed Le Cordon Bleu, she was the only female student. The men who ruled figured the equipment was just too heavy for a woman to become a proper chef.

Julia, the new documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, chronicles this and many more moments of sexism in Julia’s life. Those moments started at an early age, when Julia was a child growing up in Pasadena, California. It was an idyllic youth, full of play and fun and sunshine, but the role of a silent spouse waited in the wings. It’s what her father wanted. But Julia was having none of it. She craved adventure and purpose. 

She found it when war broke out. First as a typist for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—a predecessor for the CIA—then in Sri Lanka where she met Paul Child, the love of her life. Because he was fluent in French, Child was relocated to France, and that’s where Julia fell head over heels for food. It was sole meunière that did it; a delicate bone-in Dover sole pan-fried in an obscene amount of butter: Love at first bite. So she ate more and learned more. She enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu on the GI bill and continued to study and practice. Then she started teaching in her kitchen with friends Bertholle and Beck. They were working on a book about how to cook French cuisine for an American audience. They just needed an American perspective. Julia found her calling.

It sometimes goes unmentioned, but shouldn’t, that Julia did not come upon this life until she was well into her 30s. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published when she was 49, and her seminal show, The French Chef, didn’t come along for another two years. In a world where there is a profound pressure to find your calling at an early age, Julia is a refreshing look at what happens when you let life come to you.

Cohen and West are wise not to let these revelations slip by, despite the daunting task of capturing Julia’s 91-year story in a scant 90 minutes. Lucky for them, they’re working with a well-documented life—both publically thanks to Julia’s battery of TV shows and privately thanks to Paul Child’s photographs. Journal entries add another layer of narration, as does Julia’s recollections via audio recordings and a dozen or so talking heads interviews. 

The only real misstep comes from the copious amounts of cooking inserts, each photographed in seductive close-up and sensual slow motion. They’re designed to complement Julia’s love of food, but mostly they function as unnecessary filler. I remember watching a cooking competition show where the judging chef asked the contestant what a piece of inedible garnish was doing on her plate. “It’s just for decoration,” the contestant replied. “If I can’t eat it, I don’t want it on my plate,” the judging chef said, flicking the garnish to the floor.

I feel the same way.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Julia (2021)
Directed by Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Produced by Sara Bernstein, Julie Cohen, Holly Siegel, Betsy West, Justin Wilkes
Starring: Julia Child, José Andrés, Phila Cousins, Danièle Delpeuch, Ina Garten, Russell Morash, Sara Moulton, Jacques Pépin, Alex Prud’homme, Ruth Reichl, Marcus Samuelsson, Anne Willan
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated PG-13, Running time 95 minutes, Opens Nov. 5, 2021.