A story of food, love and the meaning of life. I believe this movie is a tale of romantic existentialist redemption that proposes we find our significance in life through a quasi-religious notion of transcendence that we create for ourselves out of the stuff of this world.
It tells two tales in different time periods as sort of parallel universes. The first is the story of how Julia Child “became Julia Child,” the famous American cook. It shows her married to an American government diplomat in France starting in 1949, and charts her journey of emptiness at not being able to have children, with her subsequent search for a fulfilling meaningful productive life. She discovers her purpose through the one thing she loves to do more than anything: eat! She eventually learns how to cook French food and the rest is history, especially the story of how she got her first cook book of 524 recipes published with two French women.
The other story is about Julie, a modern day woman, played by Amy Adams, in search of significance in her life. She feels as if she has no meaning working in a cubicle for an insurance company dealing with human losses of 911. She is restless and can never seem to finish anything she starts, including a novel she only got halfway through writing. But she loves Julia Child, so her husband encourages her to cook her way through the 524 recipes of that very cook book of Julia Child’s, in 365 days, and to blog about it online. She takes the challenge and discovers that she begins to have significance in the world as eventually people read her blog and she shares her life lessons through food and Julia.
The language throughout is very religious. Julie explains to her friends how she is always wondering what Julia would do, or how she can please Julia, as if she were right there with her. She explains that she now has a sense of meaning and purpose to her life, that “Julia saved her”. It’s very much the salvific language of deity shifted to an imminent or “this worldly” creation. And that real world human proves to be as fickle as the anthropomorphic greek deities of old. When the 90-year old Julia Child discovers Julie’s blog, that has become very famous, she rejects her for being disrespectful and Julie never gets to meet her real world idol. But her husband encourages her that it’s better that way, because the “Julia in your mind is more important.” In other words, the real world cannot provide significance to our lives because it will fail us, only the transcendent deities we create in our minds to give us meaning are what matter. We create our own meaning and significance through our imagination.
A final touch at the end underscores the religious element of this worldview as Julie and her husband visit a museum that has a replica of Julia’s French kitchen. Julie walks up to a picture of Julia Child and places a pound of butter on the altar-like table beneath the picture, a very clear reference to the thank offerings of food given in many religions to pictures of ancestors or tribal deities.
The movie does have an unusually positive depiction of marriage in showing both Julie’s and Julia’s husbands as being entirely supportive of their personal quests for meaning, and showing marriage as a very positive element of their happiness, regardless of it being unable to provide ultimate significance, with which most religious people would agree.
The film also projects an anti-Republican political agenda in depicting the essence of Julia’s curmudgeonly unaccepting father as being connected with the political pariah of Communist “witch hunter” Joseph McCarthy. And it also reinforces this with a joke from Julie’s boss who says he won’t be like a Republican and fire her from her job for taking off a sick day when she wasn’t sick.
Be that as it may, Julie and Julia is a movie about finding transcendent significance in the imminence of our own imagination rooted in the “food” of this world.