Paris Reacts to Julie & Julia


Photo Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Julie & Julia has just opened in Paris, and to the surprise of no one who knows them the French are utterly ignorant and likely uninterested in the woman who introduced their bourgeois cooking to the American bourgeosie, as this piece in the Times makes clear. They do like Meryl Streep, though. And maybe they'll like the extremely romantic early scenes of late-1940s Paris.

And they might be surprised by the picture that emerges of the doyenne of the Cordon Bleu, fierce and contemptuous of the big, brazen American woman who wants to invade her school. By the time I met her, in the late 1970s, Mme. Brassart was formidable and fairly scary. But my summertime experience at the Cordon Bleu was memorably enjoyable, if rigorous, and I came to understand the concerned rigor with which she ran the school. And I learned much more about her when I later wrote about her daughter-in-law, Sabine de Mirbeck, who started a marvelous cooking school near Brighton.

Those who really knew Mme. Brassart have been upset by the person who emerges in the film--a caricature of lofty French contempt perfectly embodied by Joan Juliet Buck, the English-born former editor of French Vogue, also the subject of a Times piece. Who better to understand than Buck, who tells Ruth La Ferla, the reporter, that the French could never condone even her footwear?

But she was much loved, including by our own Nina and Tim Zagat, who immediately set the record straight on our site. And now Valerie De Montvallon, her great-niece, has written an article of her own to introduce the woman she knew and who showed her, she says, what living really means. The Zagats sent me the draft, and I quote from the article (my translation), with the author's permission:

One of these women represented American enthusiasm, with its slightly disheveled dynamism, its will to do things fast, its wish to get someplace disregarding any [cultural] usages that could stop that will, at the risk of ignoring certain subtleties or of misunderstanding the long patience that is history. She plunged herself into French cuisine and the society that welcomed her with her own experience, her social codes from the other side of the Atlantic, and her absolute ignorance of what had preceded her in this culture. Doubtless, that would be her force and the source of her success.

Big, awkwardly oversized, with a high laugh, brusque gestures, and sketchy clothes, she met a small, lively woman with big blue eyes bubbling with malice, a woman who was always impeccably dressed and who could with a piercing look go to your soul and see the marvels that could bloom--a woman who thought that accuracy, moderation, and hard work led to success in life. Unfortunately, we learn nothing about this confrontation of two characters. The portrait is imbalanced, acerbic, willfully unpleasant.

In this tendentious portrait we see nothing of the woman who captured young and old alike with her piercing blue eyes and welcomed them with a listening ear that was always open, always young, always curious. No one could help but like her immediately. You sat down by her side and she asked you what you liked best: if you played rugby [here she uses the charming French rugbyman], she'd ask you questions about rugby rules; if you were a comedian, she'd ask about your vocation and determination. She found value in the person in front of her. She was full of humor, humor that was alive, happy, acute. She had class and tact and finesse.

This film wounds everyone who loved and admired her--and they are legion--all those for whom, at the age of 99, she remained the absolute adviser in the art of nurturing the elegance of one's soul. Without her, I would never have understood what "living" means.

The French, of course, have an expression for it: Vive la difference. De Montvallon wants us to understand what the difference really was.