The Unsung Heroine of Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia brings back memories of the Cordon Bleu's unforgettable Mme. Bressart.


Photo by Jonathan Wenk/Columbia Pictures

So just how good is Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, the Nora Ephron film that's had the food world salivating for months? Last Thursday we attended the movie's premiere in New York and we're happy to confirm that she's fantastic. We knew Julia over the years and Streep captured her in every nuance--so much so that from now on, people are likely to remember Streep playing Julia as the real Julia. Ephron's masterly touch with actors no doubt deserves some of the credit as well.

We had no particular expectations for Amy Adams, whose role was to re-create a person neither of us had ever met. But she was excellent as the 30-year-old Julie Powell, who cooked every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and detailed her experiences in a blog. Seeing Julie and her husband was like a flashback to ourselves at the same age, becoming more and more interested in food. As a break from studying law, we found the same satisfaction in cooking and eating Julia's recipes, though we certainly got through far fewer of them than the determined Powell did.

The scenes from Julia's life in the late '40s and thereafter were so well done that we felt transported back to our own days in Paris.

In terms of production values, Julie & Julia is about as good as it gets. The scenes from Julia's life in the late '40s and thereafter--particularly in Paris, as she discovered French food and learned to cook at Le Cordon Bleu--were so well done that we felt transported back to those days. Having lived in Paris a few decades later and eaten more than our fair share of restaurant meals there--not to mention Nina's time spent at Le Cordon Bleu (more on that in a minute)--the movie evoked many wonderful memories. The scenes with Julie in her Queens apartment were also realistic but, needless to say, nowhere near as romantic.

When it comes to storyline, however, the film falls a bit flat. Perhaps moviegoers who aren't already familiar with Julia Child's life will get a kick out of seeing it on screen. But as for Julie's life, watching somebody cook 500-plus recipes in a single year just isn't that dramatic. Yes, it's interesting to see how a love of food and cooking transformed the lives of both protagonists--something we can very much identify with, since it transformed ours as well--but it isn't compelling enough to hold the film together.

But back to Le Cordon Bleu, where Nina took many classes during our two years working in Paris. We were particularly struck by the film's portrayal of Madame Brassart, the school's longtime owner and director. Basically, the film portrayed her through Julia's eyes, and Julia clearly disliked Brassart--not surprising, since she flunked Julia on her first exam.

Having known both women, we can safely say that it's hard to imagine two less compatible people. Julia was tall and assertive with a loud, braying voice in English--one can only imagine what she sounded like in French. Madame Brassart, in contrast, was petite, elegant, and aristocratic, and spoke impeccable French and English, as well as several other languages. She also was an important figure in culinary education, having successfully led Le Cordon Bleu from the late '40s through 1985. As her niece, the distinguished ceramicist Martine Vermeulen, of Feu-Follet Pottery, reminded us just last night, she had the clearest skin and the most piercing blue eyes--"You could never put anything over on her, not with those eyes."

From our point of view, Madame Brassart was much more sympathetic than portrayed in the film--she had a great sense of humor and could be very funny in an understated way ("Laughter was de rigueur with her," her niece said)--and her achievements as a culinary educator, much like Julia's, are indisputable. Maybe the French equivalent of Nora Ephron, if you can imagine such a thing, will make a movie about her. Nobody can match Meryl Streep, of course. But in an ideal world, we'd cast Leslie Caron.