I watched Julie and Julia last night. I had wanted to see it at the cinema, but when I suggested it to my boyfriend, one wintry Sunday evening, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was too girly. We went to see District 9 instead. (Which was actually stupendously brilliant, not at all the rubbish sci-fi film about aliens I’d anticipated.)
So last night, knowing by now that yes the film is a bit trashy, a bit girly, but nonetheless gentle and heart-warming, I thought that, with the excuse of still recovering from my lost tonsils, I would settle down to watch it.
For those of you who don’t know, Julie and Julia tells the story of Julia Child – dotty American lady in Paris in the 1950s who then writes a seminal French cookbook for Americans – in parallel with the story of Julie Powell – a modern-day New Yorker, turning thirty, who gets over her mid-life crisis by writing a blog about cooking Julia Child’s recipes.
Meryl Streep plays Julia Child and she’s magnificent; I loved this half of the film. She totters eccentrically through Paris, gorging on oysters, pastries and fruit; she frantically practises chopping onions so as to be better than the men on the cooking course; and, of course, she cooks in stunning French kitchens. It’s escapist enjoyable fun, despite the sinister background of McCarthyism and the moments of sadness when it becomes clear that she wants, and can’t have, a baby.
The Julie half of the film – well, I’m ashamed to say that it brought out a rather horrid, unattractive side of me.
The problem began at the beginning, when I instantly empathised with the Julie character. I have a bad habit of doing this in films and books. Whenever the main character has any of the following traits – writes, reads, plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair etc. – some part of me always thinks, ‘Ah, that’s just like me.’ And then it’s just a short progression to thinking, ‘Ah, this film is actually kind of about me.’ Other recent occurrences of this curse have been with An Education (plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair), and A Long Way to Verona (writes, reads, definitely has brown hair in my imagination even if it might not be specifically mentioned in the book).
In Julie and Julia I thought, ‘Oh, she’s just like me, she tried to write a novel and she’s writing a blog and she feels like all her friends are more successful than her.’ So I instantly had a loyalty towards Julie, I was on her side, I shared her anguish during the ghastly lunch where all her friends boast about getting promoted, talk on their mobiles and don’t understand what she’s doing at all. (Sorry friends – not all of you are like that.)
But this loyalty quickly came to be tested. Julie endlessly complains about her apartment above a pizzeria, coming across as a really spoilt brat. I’m sorry, it’s a 900 square foot huge open-plan flat in New York, and, if she weren’t so into cooking, being so close to a pizza place would be heaven. Somehow she’s lucky enough to be married to a handsome, successful man, who puts up with her endless tantrums and doesn’t mind the fact that she gets up at 5.30 a.m. to write her blog, and that all she seems to do, apart from work, is cook. But yet, to Julie, her life seems to be awful, and she strops around more like a teenager than someone turning thirty.
‘Woah, she looks pretty high-maintenance,’ said my boyfriend, after one of her early strops. No, I thought, feeling loyal towards her. After all, she’s just like me. It’s difficult being a misunderstood writer. But it doesn’t take very long for me to begin to think – oh, maybe she is quite high-maintenance, and spoilt, and actually rather annoying.
Now in films, of course there are characters whom one doesn’t like. These tend to be the baddies. But the problem in Julie and Julia was I found myself not liking one of the heroines, once I’d already decided (using my stupid inbuilt-identifying-with-mechanism) she was actually a version of me. Not ideal.
The situation got worse. Julie’s blog becomes very successful and she starts being hideously full-of-herself about it, showing off to people about how many comments she gets on a post (53!) and whining to her boyfriend about how all these readers depend on her. Obviously this is unbelievably annoying and conceited of her. But, crucially, this is where the identifying-with impulse begins to let me down. You see, I identified with her as a struggling writer/blogger, not as a successful one. The worst bit is when she has sixty-something messages on her answer-phone, mostly from literary agents and publishers, following an interview she’s had in the New York Times.
At this point I am filled with rage. I have been betrayed by sweet little hopeless Julie the struggling writer, who admittedly can be quite annoying but at least is no better than me. Now she has morphed into a smug brat, who is positively thriving. She is even more irritating and she is successful. Hundreds of people read her blog and now she’s going to get a book published after all. It’s not fair, I think, and find myself beginning to cry. Incidentally, crying when one has just lost one’s tonsils is so painful that one wants to stop crying straight away. I snivel and snuffle and try to pull myself together.
Boyfriend comes over and comforts me. I now feel akin to Julie – only a less successful version – I am having a tantrum and behaving like a spoilt brat and he is putting up with it. This is awful. Inexcusable. I feel even more full of rage. I am better than this, I tell myself. I must be better than her.
I sit there feeling glum and trying to be brave while the remainder of the film unfolds. It is only when Julie is down to cooking the final recipe in the book that I have an epiphany.
Frankly, who wants to bone a duck, fill it with disgusting-looking mucky mincey stuff, cover it in pastry and bake it? Why doesn’t she just get a pizza from the conveniently-located restaurant downstairs and get a life?
And no, I’m not bitter.