Radioactive is a hypnotic and challenging film about Madam Curie. It is a difficult film about a difficult woman and is unapologetic about both. This is not a film about the discovery of radium but instead about the life, loves, and anxieties of a brilliant woman who refused to be anything but herself.
Biopics fall into essentially two categories: conventional and unconventional. The conventional biopic is easy to follow and is often crowd-pleasing. The unconventional tends to either eschew melodrama or find ways to explore their subject in ways that are off-putting. Radioactive is the latter.
The film is adapted by Jack Thorne from a graphic novel “Radioactive: Marie Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss, unread by me. Satrapi never seems ashamed of the film’s roots as Radioactive feels at times like a series of lushly drawn comic book panels with almost every frame dripping with hues of green and blues.
Thorne’s script is a little awkward at times. At points I found myself wondering if actual scientists say the word “science” as much as the characters in Radioactive do. These lines have the feel of someone trying to mimic the idea of what someone would say without getting the language quite right.
At other times the scripts wry humor and meticulously poetic prose make it impossible not to delight in the character’s speaking. After their groundbreaking discovery, Marie’s husband Pierre (Sam Riley) becomes increasingly enthralled with spiritualism and seances. Sitting in the audience Pierre tells Marie to pay attention to her, “This could change science forever. “Do you not understand we’ve already changed science forever?”
What’s so refreshing about Radioactive is how unconcerned Satrapi is with the “big” moments of Curie’s life. She and Thorne’s script are much more concerned with Curie the mercurial difficult blunt confrontational woman than Curie the renowned discoveries of the elements Polonium and Radium. So much so that when Marie and her husband Pierre present their findings to the scientific board their discovery is accepted and the film moves on.
A different film would have had Marie and Pierre struggle to convince the old guard of their discoveries. But Satrapi isn’t interested in that which is not the same as to say she is not interested in the work that went into it. One of the things she does is show us the back-breaking labor that went into the discovery.
She shows us Curie’s lab assistant hauling sacks of pitchblende, ore, off the trucks. We see Curie crushing the pitchblende with a metal bar, drenched with sweat as the furnace rages behind her. Satrapi may not be interested in the drama surrounding the discovery but she does want us to understand it took work. There are no shots of Pike’s Curie sitting idly at a desk, pensively chewing on a pen, and then having a eureka moment.
Satrapi makes Radioactive the most cinematic and esoteric interrogative bio-pic since Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter. Watching the movie, we don’t feel as if we are learning about Curie so much as we are seeing Satrapi reach into Curie’s soul and try to express her fears and doubts about the world around her. It also feels as if Satrapi seems to feel some underlying connection to Curie, both being women, aside.
I mentioned in the beginning that Radioactive was challenging to watch but not in a bad way. The structure of Thorne’s script and how Satrapi presents Curie’s life isn’t a three-act structure. Though Radioactive is told largely in a linear structure Satrapi will choose moments to flash forward to the future reminding us what we have done with Curie’s discovery. At times she will undercut an emotionally dramatic moment by cutting away to the future, oftentimes for allegorical purposes.
Moments such as Curie’s emotional breakdown after her beloved Pierre has been hit by horse and carriage. Gutted with grief she rushes to a Spiritualist’s house desperate to make contact only to find that the spiritualist is also dead. Her assistant sits outside the house, like a specter watching things unfold. Currie collapses into her arm chanting “Please will you make my husband appear?” over and over. Her wails echo into the night soon to be drowned out by a firetruck on its way to Chernobyl.
The fireman looks out the window at the pitiful figure of a grieving Marie only to soon find himself face to face with the exposed reactor core. The blue and green radium falling like light rain, the man collapses having witnessed two meltdowns. It is a daring idea that quite frankly wrecked me.
Satrapi plods along with Marie’s life only to shock you with visceral emotion at the most unexpected times. Little moments such as Mari remembering as a child how she sat by her mother’s bed as she died of cancer. It is a scene that is both heartbreaking as it is bathed in faded yellow even as it informs us of Marie’s lifelong fear of hospitals.
Pike as Marie Curie is an exemplar of making a character likable by not making her likable. Satrapi attempts to tell Radioactive through Marie’s point of view. Except Pike plays Marie with such a ferociousness prickliness that we find ourselves taking a step back. It’s this push and pull, that works so magnificently in both Pike’s and Satrapi’s favor.
The way Pike as Marie can cut a person to pieces with a simple look while also making someone feel heard by explaining her theories by using metaphors and allegories to better help a layman understand. While at a married couple’s house the wife confides to Marie, “My mother told me never to marry a brilliant man. You’ll disappoint them and they’ll disappoint you.” The husband shakes his head and asks how he could disappoint her. Marie chimes in, “By failing to avoid making her feel inadequate, I would suspect.” The other woman looks at Marie, “This woman can stay.”
It is Marie’s inability to never be anything other than forthright that makes her a pariah amongst her male peers. But it is also that quality that Pike deftly handles so beautifully. Her Marie doesn’t ask us to like her and Pike never once endeavors to try and make us care. That we come to be in awe of her is because we have seen her life both abstract and in intimate detail.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays her oldest daughter Irene in the latter part of the film. Within moments we can tell she is her mother’s daughter. She and Pike have glowing chemistry as they are both brutally honest with each other while also displaying a heart-breaking tenderness for each other.
Rarely do bio-pics feel as dreamlike and attempt to immerse us so deeply into the character’s point of view quite like Radioactive does. The way Satrapi and her cameraman Anthony Dod Mantle bathe us in images that both inform and sail with ecstatic beauty is at times overwhelming. In one scene while talking to Pierre at a club they are watching a dancer who is dressed in white but has it so her flowing robes glow with incandescent colors.
The dancer is Loie Fuller, known to movie lovers as The Serpentine Dance Girl, from a 1905 silent short. It is one of the most haunting and timeless moments captured on film from that, or any other time. Satrapi and Mantle plunge us into, not just Marie’s, life, but her psyche. The abstract leaps forward in time are part of Satrapi’s commentary as well as showing how one person’s idea or discovery can have repercussions far from anything they ever imagined.
Even the way Marie and Pierre relate and talk to each other is different. The two are educated people and thus they understand how to communicate. Their arguments are deeply rational while also allowing for their flawed but deep humanity. One argument has Marie incensed that Pierre accepted the Nobel Prize, even though she told him too, and in spite of Pierre’s best efforts to include her name with his since it was a joint effort.
Marie’s anger is understood while also being so overwhelming that she doesn’t quite know how to put it into words so Pierre can understand. But she doesn’t have to because Pierre understands why she is angry. He also understands that of the two, if there was any justice in the world, he would be standing in Marie’s shadow and not the other way around.
As Pierre receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 1903, he speaks about Alfred Nobel’s dynamite and how its practical effects have become destructive in a way Nobel never dreamed. “It is thought that radium can be very dangerous in criminal hands.” Satrapi then cuts to the cockpit of the Enola Gay as it prepares to bomb Hiroshima.
Death and regret hand over Radioactivity like a shroud. Thorne’s script and Satrapi’s sensibilities imbue a deep pervasive sense of melancholy. The beauty in Radioactivity is always tinged with just a hint of sadness.
Perhaps it’s the way Pike and Satrapi are less interested in Marie Curie as a historical figure and more fascinated with her as a woman in a particular time and place. This doesn’t feel like a biopic or even a story, so much as cinemas a string of consciousness. If you’re not prepared for it could be almost unwieldy.
Normally I roll my eyes at biopics that look at the whole of a person’s life. They take too much on and tend to turn into a highlights reel rather than a story of any kind of exploration of its subject. But Satrapi and Mantle produce what is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most aching and poetic pieces of cinema of the year so far. Radioactive looks at the whole of Marie Curie’s life and tries to put it into the context of Curie herself.
Science endeavors to strip away the obfuscations in search of the truth. Whereas art endeavors to do the opposite. Art obfuscates and piles lies upon contrivances all in the hopes to tease out a sliver of potent emotional truth. Satrapi blends the two together and attempts to use both to a haunting effect. In the end, we are left with, as Curie says late in the film, “The chemistry of the imponderable.”