The problem with making an accurate film about science is that science is rarely exciting to watch, explains the director Marjane Satrapi. Movie convention tends to insist on the climax of the eureka moment and the fiction of the solitary male genius who doggedly closes in on his discovery in the same way that a detective might close in on a killer.
‘It doesn’t happen this way,’ says Satrapi. ‘It’s a result of lots and lots of work, which most of the time is repetitive, and most of the time you know you don’t know where you’re going, and it’s lots of collaboration.’
Satrapi studied mathematics in her birthplace of Iran and has a scientist’s intolerance for dramatic license. ‘You cannot make a film about science and then lie about science. It will be a fraud.’ Which explains how she came to be attached to Radioactive, a wholly unconventional biopic of Marie Curie — who, it turns out, was a wholly unconventional woman in many ways. The familiar version of the Curie story is a template for acceptable female genius: yes, she discovered radiation and two new elements, but she did so with her husband Pierre and while bringing up two children, and what’s more she contracted aplastic anemia from her work. It’s a narrative of brilliance framed by feminine self-sacrifice.
The Curie of Satrapi’s film (played with disarming veracity by a stern-faced Rosamund Pike) is not self-sacrificing. She fights with the science faculty of the Sorbonne, where she is one of only 23 female students out of 4,000, and ends up losing her laboratory space. She fights with Pierre Curie when he offers her room in his lab, insisting that her work will be her own. She bridles at motherhood: one of the film’s best lines has her asking her young daughters if they ‘need feeding’, then sending them on their way. Even better, she’s in bed with another woman’s husband as she says this.
Satrapi has been asked, bluntly, why her Curie is such a bitch. It’s a question which she, with equal bluntness, sees as a mark of sexism. The stereotypes of femininity, she says, are that women are ‘very emotional, guided by their hormones and very sentimental. And we actually take the brain from them, because from the second somebody does not have any brain, they become a tiny little cute animal. This person stops being a human being.’ Someone like Curie was never going to fit into this mold. ‘When you are this focused, when you’re this intelligent, you don’t have the time to look for being likable. She had a job to do. These are things that we easily accept about a man.’
This is a point on which Satrapi feels kinship with her movie’s subject. ‘I’ve heard very much about myself that I am rude, but I don’t think I’m rude. You know, I don’t have the time to bullshit people. It requires lots of energy to want everybody to like you. My life is for doing what I like to do.’ There are other, more specific parallels besides. Both moved to Paris in their early twenties (Satrapi from Iran, Curie from Poland), and both became migrants, says Satrapi, ‘to do what we could not do in our own country. But that stops there, because she’s a genius and I’m not.’
In Curie’s case, her exile was in order to study science. In Satrapi’s, it was necessitated by the Iranian revolution and the rise to power of the Ayatollah. Her graphic novel Persepolis (originally published in French between 2000 and 2003, then adapted into a 2007 animated movie directed by Satrapi) tells the story of her early life and young adulthood. As the child of liberal parents in Tehran, she witnessed first their joy when the Shah was deposed, and then their horror as the democracy they had hoped for was swept away by Islamism. Protests, which had once been scenes of glorious resistance to authoritarianism, became frightening mobs.
There are strong echoes of this experience in the latter half of Radioactive. After 1910, when the freethinking Curie ran for a seat in the Academy of Sciences against the prominent Catholic scientist Edouard Branley, a hostile press portrayed her as a foreign usurper. It was reported, falsely, that she was Jewish, adding anti-Semitism to the xenophobia. Sex played a part too. After Pierre’s death in 1906, Curie was devastated (Satrapi describes Curie’s writing about her dead husband as ‘the most beautiful love letter, heartbreaking because she does not make any exercise of style’), but a few years later she fell in love again with Pierre’s former student Paul Langevin. Unfortunately, Langevin was married. In one scene, we see Curie console her daughters within their home while an outraged crowd denounces her from the street.
‘I never have confidence in the wisdom of crowds. Majority is always mediocracy,’ says Satrapi, who is conscious of contemporary parallels with Radioactive’s historical story of the rise of nationalism. It’s a position that makes her skeptical about democracy, while simultaneously anxious for democracy’s future. ‘Unfortunately in the western world, people take democracy for granted. Actually, democracy only excites people like me that didn’t have it. Of course, it is not perfect. We imperfect people cannot make a perfect system. But it’s the best system, and we have to cherish that and embrace that and love that. Believe me, people in most of the world will give their life to have this democracy.’
‘I do believe in human beings,’ she adds. ‘The thing that touches me the most is when you see a philharmonic orchestra… All these people playing one music, it gives me chills.’ This excitement about collective endeavor informs her work as a filmmaker. ‘The actors, the way they feel about the character completely changes your mind about how you want to show it. Then you have the editor, the director of photography, the designer. It’s like 50 cats making a military march. Everybody comes with their idea and then you have to put all of that together, so the whole procedure is very exciting.’
Satrapi sees collaboration as another parallel between her art and the work of the scientist, and Radioactive portrays this not just in the relationship between the Curies, but also with a series of flash-forwards that show radiation in use through the 20th century, merging into the Curie story with sometimes breathtaking visual sleights: early chemotherapy, Hiroshima, nuclear tests in Doom Town, Nevada, the Chernobyl meltdown. ‘If there was no flash forward, I would not make the film,’ says Satrapi. ‘I’ve never had a goal to make a biopic about Madame Curie. It was because we talked about the aftermath. We don’t accuse the scientists, but we talk about how we deal with the new things that we have in our hands.’
That theme comes from Radioactive’s source, a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, which was turned into a screenplay by Jack Thorne. (‘I didn’t know it was a graphic novel,’ Satrapi says. ‘Thank God it was a good one!’) Will Satrapi write any more graphic novels herself? ‘No, no, no. When I make films, one thing that is very important for me is that what I am saying should be understood the way I’m saying it. So I’m asking myself lots of questions. I have to ask myself the same questions when I make comic books. Now, my other activity is my painting. It’s the only place when I don’t ask why. Sometimes I just need to make the art for the art.’
Radioactive’s US release has been delayed due to the coronavirus. This article is in The Spectator’s May 2020 US edition.