Marie Curie Dances with Fire in ‘Radioactive’

Marjane Satrapi’s new film connects Marie Curie’s discoveries with the nuclear aftermath.

On a nuclear test site in the New Mexico desert, mannequins blaze and melt down like hyperactive candles. In the skies above Hiroshima, American pilots prepare to drop an atomic bomb on the unknowing citizens below. And decades later in Chernobyl, a fireman rushes inside a failed nuclear reactor instantly succumbing to radiation poisoning. Though each of these scenes is not directly connected to the life of Marie Curie, who pioneered the understanding of radioactivity, they are inextricably linked to her groundbreaking research.

Radioactive, Marjane Satrapi’s new movie about Marie Curie (d. 1934), isn’t merely a modern update of a biopic like Madame Curie (1943). For Satrapi to take on the project, the tragedies that followed Curie’s scientific discoveries had to accompany the ordinary details of her biography. 

The artist, writer and co-director of Persepolis (2007) and Chicken with Plums (2011) does dramatize Curie’s marriage to Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), her lab partner and husband. But their professional collaboration animates Radioactive more than their loving, supportive relationship. From her home in Paris, Satrapi confirmed via telephone that she doesn’t like biopics. She emphasizes the Curies’ pioneering work in the fields of X-ray diagnostics and radiation treatments for cancer. But the director purposefully extends the narrative into the aftermath of their discoveries as they affected the world.

“I was making a film about the scientists,” Satrapi says. First of all, she had to present the Curies’ discoveries that had changed the face of the 20th century. “They discovered radioactivity. For 2,000 years, everybody talked about cancer and nobody knew how to cure it. Suddenly there was a cure, the same cure that we are using until today,” she explains. From that origin story, the filmmaker had to talk about the atom bomb, the Manhattan Project and Chernobyl. Satrapi’s film is a hybrid work — equal parts love story, science and the aftermath of the Curies’ passionate fusion.   

When Rosamund Pike, who plays Curie in Radioactive, was in San Francisco in 2018 to promote the film A Private War, I happened to be in the lobby of the hotel where she was staying. She walked by in a floral pink sheath dress. Pike radiates her cool beauty in a nearly divine way that recalls a classic screen goddess like Grace Kelly. I asked Satrapi if Pike had to fight against the fact that she bears no resemblance to archival photographs of the late Marie Curie.  

Satrapi cast her in the lead role because she wanted to show the spirit of the scientist. “When I met Rosamund, I knew she was a great actress. But then I was struck by her intelligence,” the director says. “Marie Curie wasn’t just an intelligent woman. She was one of the most intelligent people in the world,” Satrapi says. When she met Pike in London to talk about the script, Satrapi felt that she and the actress understood the character and the story in the exact same way. Satrapi describes Pike as smart and focused. “Intelligence is not something you can really fake. If you don’t have that light in your eyes, you can try but it won’t work,” she says.   

Radioactive doesn’t imply that Marie Curie is responsible for unleashing the destructive power of plutonium on the world. “Saying that she opened a Pandora’s Box is like saying that the man who discovered fire is responsible for everything that is bad in the world,” Satrapi says. For her, the Curies are two of the most decent people. They didn’t take a patent for the element or try to make money off of it. They discovered something that was already in the natural world. The film demonstrates the difference between the Curies, who wanted to cure cancer, and “what human beings did afterwards.” 

Satrapi notes that, “Exactly 41 years before the atom bomb, Pierre Curie said in his 1905 Nobel speech, ‘It can even be thought that radium could become very dangerous in criminal hands.’” Pierre Curie goes on to say that he believes, “mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries.” The director contradicts that sentiment in scenes that connect Marie Curie’s life to the harm that followed her discoveries. When her heart is failing, Satrapi flashes ahead to Chernobyl’s collapse.  

“We tried to be subtle,” she notes. “The challenge is to have them at the right moment, to carry the message in some way.” Satrapi felt that without those tragic scenes, “the story was incomplete.” 
Radioactive is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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