I Hated My Legs Until a 1970 French Film Made Me Change My Mind
What do Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Katherine Heigl, Clive Owen, Twiggy, and I have in common? Truthfully, not a whole hell of a lot. Except for this: we all have genu valgum.
Don’t worry. You can’t catch it. Not from hotel-room carpeting, subway poles, oral sex, or even the Trader Joe’s free sample station (thank god). In fact, you couldn’t get it if you wanted to. Genu valgum is the obnoxious bastard way of saying I have knock-knees –- a condition that used to really piss me off. Especially because if you’re going to have knock-knees, it probably helps lessen the blow if you also share some other physical attributes with the likes of Mariah Carey or Katherine Heigl. Like I said, I was pissed.
Growing up, I hated my legs. I told my aunt that once. I was fishing for a compliment, hoping she’d reassure me, “What are you talking about? You have stunning gams, sweet child!” Instead, she came back with, “Well, it’s not the end of the world. Your face is pretty, so no one is going to bother looking any lower.”
Nice. I suppose. Thanks for saying I have a pretty face. But, also? Whether that’s true or not, it remains irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what’s going on with your face, people are going to keep looking south; they’re going to look at your boobs (not much to see there, either, kids), and then they’re going to look at your hips and your legs, too. It’s just what we human beings do. I’m not saying we care, exactly, but we do look, and we do judge.
It hasn’t helped that my mother does in fact have absolutely stunning gams. Slim and elegant, they taper where the lady magazines say they should taper, and they somehow manage that elusive feat of appearing delicate without looking frail, strong without looking tough. God, I wanted her legs.
Instead, I got her boobs, and my father’s legs. Men can get away with knock-knees. Rarely are men ogled for their legs. Our bar for a man’s attractiveness has little to do with his knees. Some of you are probably thinking to yourself right about now that women’s knees are similarly ignored. To which I can only say, “Well, how lovely for you. Clearly, you have nice knees.” But you nice-knee people are also clearly unfamiliar with Le genou de Claire.
That would be Claire’s Knee, the 1970 French -– of course it was French 0– film by Eric Rohmer about 30-something diplomat Jean-Claude Brialy’s obsession with 16-year-old Laurence de Monaghan’s knee. Specifically her right knee.
I stumbled across a copy of this movie in the back of the one cool video store in my hometown when the aughts were still new-ish, and I still needed parental permission to rent R-rated movies. The faded VHS sleeve showed Laurence, or rather, Claire, holding court in some kind of vaguely summery Adirondack-type chair planted in the grasses of Eastern France.
Her legs are bare and crossed, her shins gleaming. Leaning over her is a tan Jean-Claude Brialy, who sports a prominent white hat. But John Wayne he is not. His outstretched hand hovers just beside her right knee, close enough to touch and yet, not. Both of them, man and girl, stare at that knee, oblivious to the camera. It wasn’t his longing look, caught in exalted profile, which I noticed first, however. It was the calm control of her expression. She knew what she had.
Except, when I took the movie home and watched it, that’s not it at all. In a movie about intellectuals who approach summer as the season to philosophize out of doors, Claire is the prototypical unintellectual. The extent of her character development is that she’s gorgeous, young, and interprets “summer” as a verb. She’s written and acted dumb, a passive participant in every scene; the events of the movie, both on and off screen, happen to her. And, surprise, surprise, she never realizes the alluring power of her knee. She’s like all you nice-knee people. She takes what she has for granted, because she’s never not had it.
Now, about those scene-stealing knees… GUESS WHAT. They’re knock-knees. I KNOW. Nope, not even kidding.
And yet somehow, watching the movie that first time, I didn’t realize this significant detail at first. Instead I was sprawled across my childhood bed in that uniquely half-child, half-adolescent way young girls have, trying to figure out why those legs looked so familiar. When, slowly, it dawned on me: genu valgum. That brilliant instant of comprehension was one of the very few bright spots of puberty.
I continued watching the movie, of course, but it took me almost three hours to finish it. Each time Claire’s bare legs appeared on screen, I hit pause and stared at the way those knees walked or sat or stood or climbed. I was as obsessed with that knee as Jean-Claude. But I had no interest in touching it or caressing it the way he did. I wanted to study it and figure out how to make my knee straighten and bend and hold position in the precise same way, so that it would look as much like Claire’s as possible.
Why did I want this? Did I want it because I hoped a man more than twice my age would obsess over my knee? I didn’t think about it in those terms, and I don’t think I did want that, at least, not exactly.
What I wanted was for this particular part of my body, which I was so horribly ashamed of, to be appreciated. In the movie, Claire has a younger sister Laura, and it is Laura who the dashing and sophisticated diplomat encounters first. It is Laura who develops a crush on him (never Claire), and she almost succeeds in getting his attention. She might have, too, if Claire’s knee hadn’t shown up.
Laura is the one the viewer identifies with. She’s the one who watches and sees and just begins to understand what the other characters are doing and feeling. And in doing so, she’s the one who grows and changes over the course of the movie. No one else.
I understood that, even then, but I didn’t much care. Because Laura is also the one who is abandoned and ignored. She doesn’t have her sister’s confidence; Claire’s easy way with the world. That’s why no one cares about Laura’s knee. Or her elbow. Or any other part of her body. I identified with Laura, and so I wanted nothing to do with her. I was in the middle of puberty, and it really wasn’t cute. I didn’t care about emotional maturity. I just wanted some validation.
Enter Claire, making knock-knees hot since 1970.
Now, it’s true that the diplomat and Claire set a terrible example of May-December romances, an example that would eventually prove extremely unhelpful as I continued plodding down my adolescent path, but that’s another essay altogether. So setting that aside, if you can, Claire showed me the importance of attitude.
If I wanted my legs to be admired, I had to move through the world as if they deserved to be admired. Don’t like the way you feel? Unhappy with the way something looks? Change. Your. Mind. Make the decision to feel differently. Be Laura but with Claire’s attitude. I’m never going to look anything like Mariah, but when I wear a skirt or my favorite pair of denim cutoffs, I walk like I do. Because I’ve decided to have stunning gams, after all. And I do. And so do you.