“Radium. A most peculiar and remarkable element, because it does not behave as it should.”
Thrilling in moments, erratic in others, but passionately executed throughout, Marjane Satrapi‘s risky, moody Radioactive (2019), based on a graphic novel, starring an intense, moving Rosamund Pike, on the incredible twice-Nobel-prize-winning scientist, genius, and anti-establishment rebel Maria Skłodowska, aka Mrs. Curie, captures the woman, but gets lost between worlds – the discovery and its consequences, conforming and innovation, vividness and monochrome – perhaps like the protagonist herself.
My suspicion is that Satrapi, who is a visual and narrative virtuoso, landed herself a story that was to be served to a broader audience, and tried her best to craft it as her own. Hence the moments of absolute filmmaking bravado, along scenes that standalone are standard biopic fillers, which is a strange mix. Dampening the explosiveness of the tale. Pun intended.
Nevertheless, it’s a pretty historically important and insanely topical trip to make, although the film’s occasional faults are visible to the naked eye, unlike the elements Marie Curie discovered, along her beloved husband (a mellow Sam Riley), ones that brought so much change to the world. Both healing of unknowable disease, and causing unthinkable pain. The irreversible conjuration of the lord of cosmic volatility itself – radiation.
Transposed on the lonely laboratory work of the imperious Polish emigrée in turn-of-the-century Paris (a status and attitude that will turn on her in form of nationalist mob abuse once her French husband dies), we witness the scenes of Little Boy over Hiroshima, the firetruck rushing towards an incinerated Chernobyl, the scorched Nevada desert (five cents to watch the world burn), a radiation chamber in an oncology ward, sweeping over the self-absorbed, yet deeply humanist Curie, as premonitions, ghosts of the future, and shadows of the past. Her mother died of TB, a single deep childhood trauma that, according to this story, drove Marie to seek a cure, but vow to never visit a hospital again.
And speaking of conjuration, some of the best pieces of framing in Radioactive are when the reluctant, agnostic, rational Curie, accompanies her husband Pierre to spiritualist seances in Paris, organised by an artist and dancer she labels a fraud, only to search for the same woman, in desperation, years later, haunted by loss, grief, and guilt for rigorously pursuing a glowing, astonishing, yet poisonous element, that cost her love, health, and peace of mind.
As one that demanded excellence and pragmatism in everything she did, allowing love to be the only weakness that she had to submit to, her redemption was in following her eldest daughter, a young doctor (also to win a Nobel prize, with her husband), in the grim fields of the slaughterhouse that was World War I, with mobile radiography units, saving young men’s lives.
Celebrating the cold heat determination of someone that knows their worth while facing down the established rules, both professionally and privately (as widow, she notoriously took on a married lover, a colleague), with no frills and apologies for brilliance rendered, no false modesty or social affectation, that’s what Radioactive does best. And factoring in that this is also a story of an extraordinary woman at a time where she was revolutionary just by being her own sex in a calcified world that had no place, or time, for a foreign upstart that did not bow to its values, and accept her thus allocated place – the vibe I got off watching this is downright inspiring.
On a somewhat frivolous note, there is also plenty of (dark) humour to be found in the human capacity to instantly commercialise what it finds novel, fashionable and alluring, but does not endevour to understand – enter radioactive matches, radioactive chocolate, radioactive toothpaste, radioactive beauty powder, followed by a radioactive dance on Broadway. Macabre and foolish first responses to Pierre and Marie’s earnest efforts to revolutionise all that was up to then accepted as science.
However, it was the understanding of what has been unleashed, that brought on its abysmal weaponisation. In an ironic twist, of the bleakest kind.
Author: © Milana Vujkov