Ephron: Julie & Julia (2009)
Julie & Julia was the third part of Nora Ephron’s remote romance trilogy. In Sleepless in Seattle, the two leads connected across the country through talkback radio. In You’ve Got Mail, they connected within the same city by email. Finally, in Julie & Julia we have a pair of leads who “communicate” across time through blogging, which was reaching a peak in 2009, when the film was released. Yet Julie & Julia is also different in key ways from those earlier two films as well. For one thing, it’s not strictly a romance. For another, it doesn’t feature Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as the two leads. Most emphatically, though, it’s a study in one-way communication, rather than genuine communion, and so it forms a kind of melancholy end to Ephron’s trilogy, at least during the sequences that unfold during the present tense.
For the other big difference between Julie & Julia and the earlier two films is that it takes place partly in flashback, and spans two different timeframes. Ephron’s screenplay is based on two different books – My Life in France, by celebrity chef Julia Child, and Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell, which was based on her 2003 blog, The Julie-Julia Project. Powell used this blog to document her efforts to cook every item in Child’s magnum opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the course of a single year. Ephron’s screenplay cuts between Julia, played by Meryl Streep, as she discovers her culinary vocation, and Julie, played by Amy Adams, as she navigates the highs and lows of the blogging world. However, unlike Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, these two characters never meet in real life. In fact, we find out that Julia, who was still alive when Julie was writing her blog, found the project distasteful.
This shift reflects the decline of “feel-good” as a cinematic register in the decade between the release of You’ve Got Mail in 1998, and Julie & Julia in 2009. Given that the events of Julie & Julia unfold in 2003, that turns it into an affective history of the early twenty-first-century, poised between the immediate aftermath of September 11 and the peak of the Great Recession. During this period, middle-class Americans experienced a dramatic schism that filtered into mainstream film language, which typically universalises middle-class spaces. Time and again, Ephron reaches for the real estate porn, and the comforting interiors, that drove her early work, but she’s never quite able to envisage them here – at least not for Julie.
In fact, we first meet Julie in the midst of what she considers to be downward mobility – moving from Brooklyn to Queens. Ironically, this would turn out to be one of the canniest real estate decisions you could make in 2003, given the way that Queens would boom over the next two decades – especially since Julie moves to Long Island City. It’s weird to see this now-hip neighbourhood framed as undesirable, as Ephron pointedly includes the Pepsi-Cola sign in one of her early establishing shots, emphasising its derelict position before it was relocated to Gantry State Park. This produces a profound status anxiety for Julie, whose best friends all work in corporate real estate. In an early lunch scene, one of them informs her she’s purchasing a “parcel of buildings” in Midtown to make way for a new skyscraper. We never see this structure, but it feels like a forerunner of the ultra-exclusive pencil buildings that have dotted Manhattan in recent years – gated enclaves of extreme wealth, power and privilege.
By contrast, Julie’s job revolves around the still-empty space of Ground Zero, meaning that Julie & Julia is also, in its own way, a 9/11 film. Julie works at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation – basically a 9/11 call centre – where she takes all types of requests, from suggestions about the Ground Zero memorial, to people pursuing insurance claims after being injured during the Twin Towers collapse. Her office also appears to be poised just above the old World Trade Centre site, which yawns below her as she takes calls. In these scenes, Ephron pairs the banality of a call centre with the trauma of 9/11, suggesting that September 11 decisively ended a certain fantasy of sequestered middle-class space – just as it decimated a certain fantasy of the United States as a securely sequestered military space.
Julie & Julia thus presents September 11 as a rupturing of the kinds of middle-class space that once contoured Ephron’s films. For Julie, cooking becomes the last vestige of middle-class life – her kitchen is the only space where she can conjure up a bourgeois world she never knew. Julia Child quickly becomes her favourite chef, because her own cooking was so thoroughly embedded in her kitchen. To be a fan of Child was also to bask in the candor and warmth of her kitchen, and the broader domestic continuum that it evoked. Child often emphasised this domestic intimacy in her books, framing cooking as a way of bringing the reader into the personality and conviviality of her own kitchen: “If you’re alone in the kitchen, who’s to see?”
While Julie loves cooking, she becomes especially fascinated with the way that Child perfected a certain kind of bourgeois interiority in her culinary works. We learn, in the early flashbacks, that Child shared this taste for interiors with her husband, diplomat Paul Child, played by Stanley Tucci. As the flashbacks begin, Paul and Julia are stationed in Paris, largely on the basis of Paul’s major innovation – designing a secret war room for General Mountbatten, a room that was as sequestered militarily as Julia’s kitchen is sequestered domestically. Conversely, Julie defines her downward mobility by the fact that her kitchen is not contained enough – not sufficiently shut off from other food production. Time and again, she complains about the pizza restaurant downstairs, which sends its greasy fumes up into her own food preparation.
In order to “inhabit” Julia’s kitchen, Julie decides to blog all of her recipes in a single year, with the support (and patience) of her own husband Eric, played by Chris Messina. Since the film was released at the peak of blogging culture, Ephron devotes a fair amount of detail to how this all works, turning Julie & Julia into a period piece (even for its time) about the early years of the blogging revolution. We start with Julie choosing the “Blog C” template on Blogspot, and we follow her as she makes rookie blogging errors, such as posting about skipping work. Her cooking project also forms one of the many grand completist projects that typified blog writing at this time – people keen to listen to every album from a certain year, or watch every film by a single director, or travel their way through every country in a particular continent.
We also see Julie learning how to monetise her blog – and a new awareness that blogs might be turned into books. This continues the convergence of digital and printed literature that drove You’ve Got Mail, which ended with a compromise between bookstores and internet cafes. After she gains a certain amount of popularity, Julie links her blog to PayPal, and in time attracts a bevy of interested parties – newspaper editors, literary agents, television producers – culminating with an offer to appear on the Food Network. In this way, her blog becomes a kind of surrogate domestic space, rehabilitating her relationship with her husband, and her sense of self. We only see Julie and Eric sleep together once, and it occurs just before Julie makes contact with Julia – by hearing that the blog has been mentioned at her 90th birthday.
Julie’s readers also see the blog as a vicarious domestic experience – and so the film understands blogging, generally, as a bulwark against the double blow of September 11 and the Great Recession. While these events ruptured middle-class life, the film reassures us that we can still access that life through blogging, especially food blogging, which was also peaking in 2009. Blogging here becomes a kind of middlebrow counterpart to Second Life, reinvigorating the kitchen as a shared social space, the hearth of the house, for a generation that are unlikely to inhabit the grand old kitchens that we see Julia cooking and operating in.
This means luxury cooking, but also getting back to basics. In fact, getting back to basics becomes a luxury, for Julie, in an era of fast food and on-the-go meals. It’s hard to believe that Julie has never cooked an egg, or even eaten an egg, apart from when it has been mixed into a sauce or garnish. In one of the earliest cooking scenes, she crowds over her saucepan with Eric and Sarah, her best friend, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, as they all learn to poach an egg. This delight in fresh produce creates a new taste for shopping, although it’s more muted by money here than in Ephron’s earlier films, even though it takes place against the same New York food icons. Whereas Meg Ryan’s characters were orgasmic in Katz’s Deli, and shopped indiscriminately at Zabar’s, Julie is acutely aware that she has spent half of her paycheck on one trip to Dean and Deluca’s, making you wonder how she even keeps afloat.
No surprise, then, that the blogging project almost becomes an antagonist for Julie, as it steadily drains her of her income. Ephron never directly articulates how much money Julie must be bleeding, but evokes it though the increasingly combative nature of the cooking itself, which increasingly involves arcane or cruel ways of disposing of meat. The screenplay makes a real point about Julie killing a lobster, framing it as an epic battle to reclaim the kitchen, bizarrely scored to Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” This lobster recipe turns out to be the tipping-point in Julie’s blog – or perhaps more accurately her account of killing the lobster, which leads to an upsurge of comments. These rocket her to the third top blog on Salon, and leads her friends to suggest that she monetise her posts. The lobster also coincides with her thirtieth birthday – it’s what she cooks – a traditional threshold of bourgeois consolidation.
Yet these gory scenes don’t end with the lobster. If anything, Ephron intensifies the gore from this point onwards, taking us through a series of visceral recipies – preparing a calf’s foot, mastering the “seven aspics” and (the final stage) boning a whole duck. These scenes often recall what Mark Seltzer termed “wound culture,” a “mass attraction to atrocity exhibitions” that he first articulated in the late 90s, but which became even more prominent in the wake of 9/11. Wound culture is, in part, an abject need to self-disclose, so it squares the circle between the post-September 11 backdrop of the film and the blogging culture that it depicts. Julie herself is an embodiment of wound culture, and seems perpetually wounded even when things seem to be going fairly well. She has a total meltdown over the aspics, and yet documenting this meltdown leads to her first newspaper interview, with the Christian Science Monitor, who contact her to suggest bringing Julia Child’s own editor, Judith Jones, for dinner.
Beyond a certain point, this fixation with wound culture is so ridiculous that the film has to acknowledge it, which it does reflexively, in a scene where Julie and Eric watch Dan Akroyd’s parody of Julia Child, “The French Chef.” In this iconic Saturday Night Live sketch, Akroyd bones a chicken – the last item on Julie’s list – as blood, guts and viscera fly in every direction. By presenting the end of Julie’s quest in parodic terms, and depicting Julie and Eric laughing at it, Ephron concedes that there’s something a bit ridiculous about Julie’s endless dourness.
This brings us to the real twist of the film – that Julia’s hold over bourgeois space and status is just as tenuous as Julie’s, perhaps even more so. Sure, Julia’s house in Paris initially looks like the real estate porn that the film craves, and that Julie craves. Yet we quickly learn that Julia has had to overcome more, in her way, to achieve domestic tranquillity. She was a virgin until she was forty, when she married Paul, at which point she was too old to have children. She also doesn’t want to be an idle wife, but finds herself in a foreign city with too much time on her hands. She’s also physically imposing in ways that read as “masculine,” especially in tandem with her sister Dorothy, played by Jane Lynch, who visits her in Paris midway through. We learn that both Julia and Dorothy are unusually tall, too tall to ever quite fit into a regular home, as either children or adults. Neither of them (literally) measure up to men in a conventional way – in stark contrast to Julie’s mousy femininity, which exudes dependence.
While Julia may live in better appointed spaces than Julie, she doesn’t have exactly have an easy relation to bourgeois tranquillity either. In Paris, she and her husband are diplomats, so they don’t own their house. Back home, they admittedly live in a beautiful house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, but they’re never quite at home in the United States, since Paul’s career is curtailed by a McCarthyist probe during the later part of his time in France. Child herself often articulates this sense of dislocation – “Where’s home? Where do we we live?” – and so you sense that she treated her television kitchen in much the same way as Julie, namely as a fantasy of a middle-class existence that she never quite occupied fully herself. Yet the film can never quite acknowledge that Julie’s fantasy of Julia may also have been Julia’s own fantasy of herself, since this would be to rupture the film itself as a consoling fantasy. As a result, Julie & Julia is curiously taciturn, reserved and even suspicious of Julia’s TV career, even though (or especially as) it’s the part of her practice that first drew in Julie.
Yet eliding Julia’s television career just reiterates that publication was a more fraught process for her too. Julie’s self-pity and chronic malaise stems from her unfinished novel, which was the reason she took the job at the call centre instead of following her friends into the high-flying world of corporate finance. Her novel was meant to be her golden parachute, her bid for bourgeois status. That’s sympathetic up to a point, but it pales in comparison to what Julia and her peers had to go through. In an especially sobering scene, Julia meets with Irma Rombauer, who describes how she had to pay to get The Joy of Cooking published, before being cheated out of her royalties. Julia also finds it hard to be taken seriously by editors – there’s an unspoken sense that a literary tome is less acceptable when it focuses on cooking.
None of this is to say that Julie’s angst is meaningless, but it does put it in perspective. After all, she’s free to continue her book if she wants, while she gets an instant readership (and then instant remuneration) from her blog. For a moment, the film tries to claim some parity between Julia and Julie’s experiences of editors, in the scene when the Christian Science Monitor suggests inviting Julia’s editor to dinner with Julie. Yet this invitation never eventuates, due to a freak thunderstorm, muddying any real sense that Julie would simply be able to fill Julia’s shoes – or cope with Julia’s obstacles – if she were transported back in time.
Despite these obstacles, Julia’s buoyant optimism and can-do pragmatism is light years away from Julie’s angst – “Scientific workability, that’s my motto!” Julie loves the fact that Julia wrote for the “servantless American cook,” and repeats this phrase ad nauseum, both to Eric and on the blog. Yet Julia only comes up with the phrase while trying to translate the Cordon Bleu ethic into an American lexicon – she’s not used to servants herself, but translating a French culinary culture that arose out of the decline of a more European aristocratic class. It’s telling that Julie takes this phrase more literally, seizing upon it as a pretext to feel disenfranchised for having never had servants. This mistranslation epitomises the film – Julie feeling victimised for missing out on a bourgeois life that was a fantasy even for Julia’s time.
As the film proceeds, then, Julie feels more and more conventional and conservative, while Julia exudes a kind of queer energy, especially in tandem with sister Dorothy and husband Paul. To a certain extent, tallness equates to queerness here, partly because Jane Lynch was peaking as a lesbian character on Glee at this particular moment. There’s also something queer about Julia and Paul, if only because they’re an older heterosexual couple who married late, and never had children. HUAC feel the same way, frankly asking Paul if he’s a homosexual during their McCarthyist interrogation. By contrast, Julie’s biggest setback is when Julia’s editor doesn’t come to dinner. This small setback quickly collapses into the broader 9/11 texture, as we cut to her walking past the fence of September 11 memorials the next morning.
In other words, Julie & Julia is partly about Julie’s sustained misreading of Julia, to the point where Julie almost becomes an antagonist to Julia, just as Julia’s more visceral recipies antagonise her. This might become (more) grating if Ephron didn’t pitch it at the same cosmic romantic scale as Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Most of the time, this romance occurs between Julie and Julia, but there is one scene when it slips over into Julie’s relationship with Eric. They have one fight, a tiny tiff, and yet this sole moment of separation is immediately vast, imbued with the romantic distance of Ryan and Hanks in those first two films. Only a few angry words are spoken, but both Eric and Julie read it as a breakup – and suddenly they’re both mystically alone in the city, waiting for that primal point of connection.
Of course, none of this romantic mysticism can quite disguise the fact that Julie’s relationship with Julia is resolutely one-sided. Julie might “have conversations with her while I’m cooking” and “feel as if she’s there in the kitchen with me,” but this just reiterates the one fact the film can’t fully process – that Julia Child was still alive when the blog was being written. Julie is thus doubly dislocated in time from Julia, since she’s pointedly communing with Julia’s past self, rather than making any effort to reach out to her, or address her, in the present. It’s quite telling, then, that Julia doesn’t like the blog, and considers it disrespectful, an opinion that filters back to Julie after Julia is asked about the project during a party for her 90th birthday.
Ephron tries to spin this revelation as bringing Julie even closer to Julia’s own experience, as we cut from this rejection to Julia herself being rejected by her first publisher. But Julia’s disapproval sticks out like a sore thumb – the film can’t respectfully ignore it, but can’t fully process it either. Eric tries to reassure Julie that the Julia in her head matters most: “I’m never going to meet her.” “You already know her.” “She saved me.” “You saved yourself.” These are pretty limp explanations, though, and simply reinforce that something remains unbridgeable between Julie and Julia – between the feel-good world that Julia represents in Julie’s fantasies, and the domestic dourness ushered in by September 11 and the Great Recession.
Put bluntly, the film can’t quite acknowledge that Julia Child was still alive in Julie Powell’s present – that Julia Child was alive in 2003. Like the earlier two films in the trilogy, then, Ephron has to conclude with a fantasy space that splits the difference between reality and representation, between embodied and digitally mediated life. In Sleepless in Seattle, we ended with Hanks and Ryan meeting at the top of the Empire State Building, effectively reliving the conclusion of An Affair to Remember, Ryan’s character’s favourite film. Similarly, You’ve Got Mail ended with Ryan and Hanks meeting for the first time, in Riverside Park, only for Ephron to pan up to a bright white sky that resolved into an empty email composition box.
In Julie & Julia, that fantasy space is Julia’s television kitchen, which is preserved at the Smithsonian. After making a pilgrimage to see it, Julie turns to a photo of Julia on the way out, declares “I love you Julia,” and then leaves the frame, as the camera pans back to the kitchen, which is then relit in warm colours. We now shift back to the past again, as Julia enters and begins cooking, before Paul enters with the first edition of her book, which has just arrived in the mail. Reality and representation converge around this book, as Ephron freezes the frame, and concludes with a series of intertitles that position Julie at the same cusp between page and screen: “Her book has been made into a movie,” namely the movie we have just watched.
In other words, Julie & Julia almost entirely elides Julia’s television career, only to end with this last (literal) set piece that concedes that only in Julia’s television life can we find the bourgeois interiority that the film is yearning for. Almost despite herself, Ephron concedes that Julia’s kitchen was a fantasy to begin with, a fantasy that Julia needed as much as her audience – and in many ways the end of “feel-good” was the end of this fantasy, the end of its plausibility even as a fantasy. As with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, Ephron never resolves this fantasy, but leaves us poised on its precipice – even more precariously, because the fantasy is even more fragile now, and barely enough to sustain this curious film.
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