Friday, 2 April 2010


I finally caught up with Julie & Julia on DVD -- and it's a very odd film indeed. Pleasant at times, entertaining at times, but it's like two different films stitched together; one a charming story of romance and the other a rather standard story of career struggle mixed with the difficulties of marriage a la Sex and the City. But first the odd but interesting...

Back in 1977 Meryl Streep played the wife of a Canadian hockey player, played by Michael Moriarty, in a film called The Deadliest Season; as I remember he spears an opponent with his stick, a kidney is ruptured, a hockey player dies, he is charged with manslaughter, she suffers bravely. I came up with a theory at the time that this film proved Streep would take any role as long as it allowed her to try a new accent, and nothing she has done since has worked to disprove that theory. Her Julia Child has the weirdest accent I've ever heard; like Marge Simpson playing Katharine Hepburn playing Margaret Dumont, but that isn't what makes the film odd: it works perfectly and Streep, aided by Stanley Tucci in yet another impeccable supporting role--his Eichman to her Heydrich yet again, is brilliant at conveying Child. Sometimes Streep stops short, letting the physical dominate, but though the temptation here must have been very strong, she gets inside the character and the outside follows. It's not an exaggeration to say I watched the film wishing I could fast forward through Julie to get back to Julia.

It is odd to see a story with two central characters who are so contrasting, in the very simple sense that one is basically unpleasant while the other is literally a hoot. The film is and, I assume, the book was self-aware enough to realise this--but Julie is not a very nice person to be around; her friends early in the film provide a freak show there to make her look better, while her friends later in the film are literally anonymous. It is because they exist only in so far as they reflect her, and she is so self-reflective they are unncessary. Her husband, who eats like an animal, which is amusing but doesn't ever get into the story, puts up with it with more sop than realism, but it is hard at any point to feel real sympathy. This makes it either a very brilliant performance by Amy Adams, playing shallow, or else a performance where no one realises that this is what she is.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, the format of parallel stories actually works. It's become old hat as a structure in the past decade or so, a way to short-cut any number of story-telling issues, especially when one of the characters is an historical figure. The fact that they are contemporaneous makes little difference, but it does add another dimension to the story. And that's where I find it really odd, and that's specifically around the whole question of blogging. I appreciate the irony that I am writing this on a blog, which is unlikely to be featured in the New York Times and thus lead to literary and film deals, and that my reactions are more than a day late and thus way more than a dollar short, but it seems to me that the crux of the difference between the characters lies as much in the times, and in the modes of expression, as in their very different personalities.

Partly, this is because the subject of French cooking was new for Julia, the idea of cooking on television was new, and partly because her manner of approaching them was all or nothing: she wrote for herself as she cooked for herself, not out of frustration at not being a writer but out of frustration from not being able to express her desire to cook and her joy in cooking in any other way. For Julie, it's a backdoor to being the writer she wants to be, not the cook she becomes, and to me the question of whether the film works depends on whether you believe that what she has really learned from Julia is simply 'how to cook' and whether that really has saved her life. I am not convinced--though I have to say that part of the reason for that may be down to my having read Julie Powell's article about her book Cleaving in the Guardian a few weeks back (you can find it here) in which she links herself to other celebrity adulterers and convinces me her husband Eric is indeed soppy, if not sappy. Or ex-husband, as the case may be. I wonder if his resentment at seeing himself in her blog resurfaced?

The blogosphere is a lot like the world of fanzines was before the internet came along, and it just made me wonder if what we were seeing was really a kind of parallel stage door story, only the stage door in our modern world requires much more concentrated solipcism to get through?

A couple of odd footnotes. Was it deliberate that Amy Adams' Julie pronounced boeuf 'boof, as in boof bourguignon? And when the movie appeared here, there were a number of reviews that criticised it for not mentioning Elizabeth David, who did for the British what Julia Child did for Americans. I'm not quite sure what that would have done for the story, and I doubt it would have made it any more baftalicious, not that that matters. And ask someday about my recipe for Chili Bourguignon, and how I nearly took it to the World Chili Championships in Terlingua, Texas.

No comments :