“There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.” — Marie Curie
Director Marjane Satrapi is best known for Persepolis, the graphic novel about her youth and the turbulent events in and out of her native Iran, and the award-winning film she adapted from it. Her latest project, Radioactive, draws from the same genre. It was taken from the work of equally innovative writer Laura Redniss, recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as the “genius grant”) for a previous publication, whose graphic non-fiction has expanded into areas seldom covered by comic book artists. Redniss’ 2010 visual biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout, was reworked by Satrapi and television writer Jack Thorne into an entertaining mix of personal and professional, scientific philosophy and its worldly effects, in this inventive story of the Curies and their work, with a particular focus on Marie Curie. The film had its gala world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Satrapi’s admiration of Marie Curie dates from much earlier; in Persepolis, she describes her younger self’s wish for greatness by saying, “if the pursuit of knowledge meant getting cancer, so be it,” a reference to Madame Curie’s ultimate fate. With Radioactive, Satrapi is clearly enjoying the opportunity to present a woman she admires to the world, in an honest portrait that demonstrates her greatness and refusal to compromise, while freely acknowledging her follies and weaknesses; not as flattery, but genuine and fully informed respect. The combination of elements in the film results in something unusual: a feminist, historical romance about atomic structure.
While the Curies’ achievements are the main focus of the story, the real lives of Marie and Pierre Curie are included and made part of the overall story. Rosamund Pike gives humanity and depth to a woman known almost entirely for her scientific accomplishments, and Sam Riley is equally believable as her husband and collaborator, Pierre Curie. The film begins with young scientist Maria Sklodowska, facing bias and obstruction from the nearly all-male scientific community and searching for a way to continue her research. Perhaps unfortunately, the film bypasses the couple’s early life, some intriguing details of which Redniss touches on, including Maria’s birth “the same year Alfred Nobel patented dynamite,” her membership in a clandestine network of women scholars knows as the Flying University, and her work as a governess in order to earn tuition to the Sorbonne; and Pierre’s early promotion from unpromising daydreamer to child scientific prodigy, and his solitary life of study before meeting Maria. Instead, the film begins with young Maria Sklodowska, recently moved from Russian-occupied Poland to Paris, in hope of finding a more supportive atmosphere for her studies. Renamed Marie, the young scientist is offered laboratory space by fellow scientist Pierre Curie, whose research has some parallels with hers. In spite of Marie’s understandable dread of having her research appropriated by a male scientist, they finally agree to collaborate. They form a bond over their work, and eventually marry.
The couple’s personal life and their work are followed simultaneously and allowed to overlap, much as it would have in real life; and their personalities colour their scientific research. Marie is shown to be almost comically serious and single-minded about her science, and their relationship sometimes burdened by her initial possessiveness over her own research, and her fear of being eclipsed by the male half of the partnership. Her concerns are acknowledged as valid, in view of her encounters with the scientific community, although Pierre Curie does, in fact, seem to regard his wife as at least his equal as a scientist. Their egalitarian alliance is tested more than once, particularly when their joint discoveries result in a Nobel Prize being offered to Pierre Curie alone for their joint discovery, forcing him to take a stand. The difficulties of sustaining a marriage and a working relationship in the face of nineteenth-century prejudices are explored through the Curies’ personal struggles, as we follow their work and their unprecedented discoveries: correcting misunderstandings about the nature of the atom; revealing the existence of two entirely new elements; and most famously, discovering and explaining radioactivity.
This would be an interesting but fairly conventional biography if it were not for Satrapi’s unique approach, which draws to some extent from graphic novel conventions. A combination of animation and well-timed flash-forwards serves to either explain, illustrate, or provide commentary on events in the Curies’ lives. When Marie and Pierre Curie begin to describe their research at a dinner party, the film fades away from the complicated explanation to animated images which give a fanciful illustration of the properties of uranium, making it clearer and giving us a taste of the Curies’ exuberant viewpoint. Similarly, the camera moves from the newly married Curies in bed, to an image of the night sky, in which the moon and stars become a whimsical animated simulation of conception, informing us indirectly that the couple are expecting their first child: future Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Irène Joliot Curie.
Even more intriguing are the series of flash-forwards throughout the film, which remind the viewer of the consequences, good and bad, of the Curies’ work. For example, a passing comment by Marie, hoping that their discoveries may do some good, cuts to a brief scene of a 1957 hospital, in which radium is being used to treat malignant tumours; while a mention of the possible dangers of radioactivity is interrupted by a simple shot of the Enola Gay, the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb. Another statement is punctuated by a brief, poignant image of the destruction of Hiroshima. Most ominous, following Marie Curie’s lighthearted description of radium, an element which “does not behave as it should,” is a more extended, graphic clip of an atomic weapons test ground, meant to replicate the effects of nuclear weapons on the human population.
The Curies experience a period of fame and popularity following the Nobel Prize achievement, which takes strange forms. The film, once again relying on a graphic novel-style of explanation, shows us a montage of radioactivity-inspired products, including radioactive matches, bath salts, and even a cure for baldness. The idea of radioactivity as a cure for the disease is brought up for the first time. Their public acclaim fades as the dangers of radioactivity become known, just as Pierre himself become ill from constant exposure during his research. As the Curies continue to cope with fading public support, personal conflicts, illness, and the birth of their second child, as well as with Pierre’s unexpected interest in spiritualism and seances, their work continues, always first and foremost to both of them. The film deals sympathetically but realistically with Marie’s fear of having credit for her research appropriated or devalued, to an extent that would seem paranoid were it not so justified by her past experience.
The final act deals with Marie Curie’s work following the death of her husband in 1906, and with the troubles she endured. Supported by some factions of the public and of the French press, Curie was also the subject of hatred by others. She was blamed for unleashing the dangers of radioactivity on the world, attacked as a foreigner and accused by some, who found it the direst possible accusation, of being secretly Jewish. As rumours and scandals hound her, even her second Nobel Prize is marred by concerns from the Nobel Committee over “unnecessary controversy” should she accept the award in person, at which time Curie receives unexpected support from the women’s movement in Sweden. It is her daughter, Irène, then involved in reforming hospitals and battlefield medicine, who opens up new opportunities for Marie, offers her distraction from her troubles, and suggests to her new ways to be useful and to put her gifts to good use.
The film follows Marie Curie’s career to the end, showing her intellect, her curiosity, and her determination to be no less admirable in her failing years than at her height. The final scene brings the story to a perfect conclusion. It unexpectedly permits the real and the overlaid virtual scenes to mesh at last, in a marvellous use of the previous flash-forward technique, allowing the dying Marie to join us in surveying everything that has emerged from her life’s work, indiscriminately mixing the evil or tragic with the enlightening or hopeful. It is this distinctive approach by the director that not only provides effortless context but also elevates Radioative from a straightforward biography to something more exciting.