Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley in Radioactive by Marjane Satrapi

Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley in Radioactive

Marjane Satrapi on her meta Marie Curie biopic Radioactive

We spoke with the filmmaker about her unconventional approach to the biopic.

If it seems like an odd fit that Marjane Satrapi, who first rose to prominence by directing the adaptation of her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, would direct a Marie Curie biopic, don’t fret: she’s way ahead of you! Though the screenplay for Radioactive is based around a graphic novel — or, rather, an illustrated book — the story’s artistic roots weren’t readily apparent to Satrapi.

“I didn’t know either!” says Satrapi. “In fact, it’s not a graphic novel. A graphic novel has certain codes, speech bubbles, and so on. It’s an illustrated book. I didn’t know there even was a book. I received a script, which I read and loved. It’s only afterwards that I even found out about the book. It really wasn’t intentionally adapting the book.

“Lauren Redniss had the brilliant idea of placing the history of radioactivity and the effect it had on the world alongside the life and love story of Pierre and Marie Curie, and that’s what we kept from the book. Jack Thorne wrote an extraordinary script – you know, good books don’t necessarily make good scripts. If the script hadn’t been good, I would not have been interested!”

Radioactive focuses on the life of Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike), beginning more or less when she meets Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) on the street. They fall in love, bonding over their shared love of science and discovery, which in turn leads them to discover the principles of radioactivity. Their discovery proves to be efficient for treating tumours and other cancer symptoms, but the Curies are almost immediately concerned with the possible nefarious uses of radiation.

Radioactive is a colourful take on the period film in which Satrapi and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle focus on the neon properties of radioactivity to inform the visual look. Paired with the many sequences set after Curie’s death, this approach gives Radioactive a different look from the usual brown-blue-grey period biopic.

“It sucks,” says Satrapi of the usual period look that applies to many movies set in the same era as Radioactive. “I hate period movies and I hate biopics to begin with. If this biopic was titled Le fabuleux destin de Marie Curie, I never would’ve done it! (laughs). The book and the movie were called Radioactive — it’s about this woman, but it’s also about her science and the effects that her discovery had on the world at the time she was alive. At that time, it was considered the best treatment against cancer — which is still the case today, we still use it, of course — but the usage of this discovery subsequently made the project more than a biopic to me. If it wasn’t about both Marie Curie and radioactivity, I wouldn’t have done it. Biopics of Marie Curie have already been done. Just making a movie to say, ‘Oh, she was so sentimental, she loved Pierre Curie so much…’ again… We already know all of that!”

“I have one life, and that life will be over soon, relatively speaking,” she continues. “I want to explore as many different things as possible in that life and in cinema. When I make a movie, I have no interest in making that movie again. I already know how to do that. There are people who essentially make the same film over and over again and get better at it with each attempt and who are seeking some kind of perfection in repetition. I’m the opposite; I want to do all kinds of different things and put myself in a dangerous situation, so to speak. I don’t like being comfortable at work. When I’m afraid, when I don’t have the solution, when I need to troubleshoot problems – that’s what interests me. It’s mainly based out of curiosity – my brain isn’t interested in repetition. I don’t have that drive to become, you know, an Olympic champion. Instead of becoming the champion, I’d rather play every sport.”

Rosamund Pike in Radioactive

The film also deals somewhat with the elasticity of time and of societal advancements. Marie Curie died in 1934 — not even a century ago — and yet her world is a markedly different one. Pierre Curie died when he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage, and a scant few years later, his discovery would lead to the invention of the atomic bomb. Radioactive really puts into context how rapidly our world has advanced.

“It’s a big problem,” says Satrapi. “The way our brains process information is no different from the brain of a guy born 2,000 years ago. It’s the same brain. The brain needs a certain amount of time to digest new ideas, and nowadays things move so fast that we don’t get that amount of time. I think that’s also what’s leading to all these populist, nationalist movements in the world these days. There’s a whole section of the population that feels they’ve become useless, they’ve been cast aside. That’s where nationalism comes in. WWI was sort of the same thing as well. There was industrialization, and some people were cast aside.”

There’s something timeless about how the film treats the discovery of radioactivity. There are shades of Facebook or Twitter in the way the film depicts a discovery that was only originally intended for good suddenly becomes distorted and amplified.

“The first person who discovered fire discovered something that could destroy everything, but without that destructive power, we never would have had food, architecture and so on,” says Satrapi. “You can use it with good intentions or bad ones, but it isn’t even an invention. Radioactivity exists in nature. She discovered something that already existed, but what people did with it after her death is none of her business. What we need to think about is what we’re doing with discoveries like that.”

That’s what the sequences set after the death of Curie are meant to represent. Sequences at Hiroshima and in a “doom town” (a fake city set up by the American government to test nuclear bombs and “itemize” the levels of destruction) show the extent of how far from the original goal radioactivity ultimately wound up.

“These two decent people discover something called radioactivity,” Satrapi continues. “Their first instinct is to use it to treat cancer. We find a treatment for cancer, which is something that people have been aware of since Ancient Greece, but that no one had successfully treated before. That ‘doom town’ was after Hiroshima! They know it’s highly radioactive and that it could harm people, but what happens? Tourism! People pay to come and see the mushroom cloud and get cancer and we kept doing it. These are things that happen. I’m not the one casting light on this for the first time. But going out and saying, ‘Oh, Marie Curie, great, great’ and casting light on the discovery but not the aftermath would be irresponsible. It’s not Marie Curie’s responsibility what people have done to modify her discovery. The idea is what do you do with a new discovery? You can take a knife and make your girlfriend the best meal of her life, or you can take that very same knife and kill her with it! You’re the one who’s responsible, not the company that made the knife!”

Radioactive opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 18. Watch the trailer below:

Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley star in Radioactive by Marjane Satrapi

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