This story contains spoilers for Radioactive.
There’s a reason Radioactive, director Marjane Satrapi’s latest film, isn’t just called Marie Curie. Though the action revolves mostly around the woman who co-invented radium, played with icy intensity by Rosamund Pike, it’s not a biopic. Satrapi, best-known for her inspirational coming-of-age graphic novel, Persepolis, and the subsequent film adaptation, wouldn’t dream of ever making something as banal as that.
“I don’t like biopics” Satrapi recently told Refinery29. I always find that you get a very curious image of someone — like they’re not human. Instead, they’re an abstract concept, representing an idea. And when I imagine someone’s life, I don’t want to live in someone else’s version of them. When it’s a Wikipedia page of someone’s life, I find it boring.”
No one could accuse Satrapi’s version of Marie of that. Terse and aggressive, she’s the answer to the countless elegies to the curmudgeonly male genius who forgoes social niceties in pursuit of higher knowledge.
“When I made Radioactive, people were always telling me Marie was too mean and difficult, Satrapi said. “These are traits we admire in men who we consider geniuses. We say, ‘He was a piece of work, but what a genius!’ It then becomes almost like an obligation for them to be difficult. But for a woman, we always have to be sympathetic and sweet; the best mother, the best mistress, whatever. That was also what I wanted to show with this movie: I wanted to show Marie Curie as I see her, as I understood her after reading her correspondence and her journals.”
Based on Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, the film instead weaves events from Marie Curie’s life— including her romance and collaboration with husband Pierre — into a broader narrative about scientific discovery, and the ethical and moral considerations of radioactivity.
“The story of Marie and Pierre Curie, and their discovery of radioactivity — with all the good and bad that has come from that — is the story of the 20th century,” Satrapi said.
The movie punctuates Marie’s narrative with a series of vignettes illustrating the various ways in which her most famous discovery has shaped mankind’s trajectory. Scenes of destruction — the Enola Gay dropping a nuclear bomb over Hiroshima in 1945; 1953’s Operation Doorstep, which saw the U.S. build a fake 1950s town in the middle of the Nevada desert to assess the destructive potential of nuclear weapons; the catastrophic Chernobyl core reactor meltdown in 1986 — exist alongside moments of true enlightenment. Without radioactivity, there would be no chemotherapy, no portable X-ray trucks used to save thousands of lives starting in World War I.
All of this comes together in the film’s final moments, when Marie collapses in her lab and is rushed to the hospital. As she goes in and out of consciousness, she sees all that her discovery has wrought, culminating in a reunion with her beloved husband Pierre, who by then has been dead for nearly 28 years. Marie Curie died in 1934. There’s no way she could actually have known about the atomic bomb, let alone how governments would choose to wield it. Nor could she have known about the gross mishandling of the Chernobyl disaster, which claimed hundreds of lives. Likewise, chemotherapy only really entered the testing stages in the 1940s. But again — this isn’t a biopic. By taking the audience on a journey through the history of radioactivity, rather than simply focusing on Curie’s biography, Satrapi manages to bring the abstract concepts of a scientific discovery to life. But she also forces her protagonist to engage with her legacy, confronting her with uncomfortable truths that are at odds with her original intent in unleashing this science into the world.
“The discovery of radioactivity changed everything,” Satrapi explained. “It changed the balance of power in the world. But at the same time, the first thing Marie and Pierre Curie thought about was how radioactivity might provide a cure for cancer. It was an illness that had existed since Ancient Greece, but no one knew how to treat it — until then.”
In his acceptance speech for the 1905 Nobel prize he shared with Marie, Pierre Curie — who died in 1906 when he was run down by a carriage, his reflexes weakened by long-term exposure to radium — pointed out that, in the wrong hands, scientific discoveries can have disastrous consequences. But in the right hands, it can lead to the enlightenment and betterment of mankind.
“It can even be thought that radium could become very dangerous in criminal hands, and here the question can be raised whether mankind benefits from knowing the secrets of Nature, whether it is ready to profit from it or whether this knowledge will not be harmful for it,” he said. “The example of the discoveries of [Alfred] Nobel is characteristic, as powerful explosives have enabled man to do wonderful work. They are also a terrible means of destruction in the hands of great criminals who are leading the peoples towards war. I am one of those who believe with Nobel that mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries.”
Has the good outweighed the bad? Radioactive challenges you to decide.