Director Marjane Satrapi’s “Radioactive” starts by trotting out an old biopic staple: a famous person approaching death and remembering life in a series of beautifully lit flashbacks. But by the time the film ends almost two hours later, Satrapi has pretty much abandoned the premise she started with, because the “memories” of Marie Curie have come to include flashbacks nestled inside other flashbacks, memories of events that Curie didn’t see and trips into a future that took place decades after her death.
In a way, demolishing your own premise as the movie goes on makes for a more adventurous and interesting trip than a typical biopic, but “Radioactive” is a curious beast from the director best known for her graphic novel “Persepolis,” and the Oscar-nominated film adaptation she directed with Vincent Paronnaud. Its boldest strokes also seem to be its most random ones, and its default mode is a certain melodrama and overstatement, both verbally and visually.
Then again, you could say that a delirious woman near death might tend to recall her life with more than a bit of melodrama. And given Rosamund Pike’s fierce performance as Curie, you could almost buy that theory – although if you tried to sell it to the opinionated Madame Curie, she’d probably shoot you a dismissive look and write you off as a sentimental fool.
The film, which closed last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is getting a video release from Amazon in lieu of its cancelled theatrical run, looks at a woman who was neither sentimental nor a fool. It begins in the early 1890s, when Polish immigrant Maria Sklodowska meets a fellow scientist, Pierre Curie (an easygoing Sam Riley). She’s been kicked out of her lab – maybe for being overbearing, maybe for being a woman, maybe for being smarter than everybody around her. She and Pierre flirt a little, which in this case means they admit to having read each other’s latest scientific papers; then he offers to share his lab with her, which she initially refuses but later accepts.
Marie, as she calls herself, is demanding and uncollaborative, but she relents when she figures out that Pierre is pretty good at what he does, too. “You have one of the finest minds I’ve ever met,” she tells him. “But my mind is finer.”
Before you know it, they’re married, then they’re skinny-dipping in the French countryside, then they’re discovering radium and polonium together. (Well, actually, she discovers radium while he’s asleep, and doesn’t want to wake him.) When they talk about their discoveries over a dining room table, the screen dissolves into graphic representations of radioactive atoms, which seem a little random and don’t really explain anything to the audience.
But “Radioactive” is a nervous, itchy movie – while Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is moody and beautiful, composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine get all spacey and Philip Glassy, and Satrapi keeps flashing forward to 1957 (radiation treatment for cancer) or 1945 (the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima) or 1986 (the Chernobyl disaster).
At the end of the movie, Satrapi tries to tie all this together as Marie takes a dreamy walk through the future world her discoveries helped create – but dropped into the story along with occasional dance scenes and graphic illustrations, they feel less like integral parts of the narrative and more like distractions and affectations.
And that’s too bad, because the story that “Radioactive” is telling could use some adventurous touches to distract from dialogue that bypasses small talk for one grand declaration after another. This is a movie that shows the Curies’ work changing the world, but then has Marie say, “I can feel our work … changing the world.”
It jumps through the years quickly, hitting the high points (winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903), the tragedies (Pierre’s death in a road accident three years later), the scandal (her ostracization from Paris society after having an affair with a younger married man) and the comeback (winning a second Nobel Prize, for chemistry and creating medical advances in World War I). While the approach manages to fit in a remarkable life (though it skips right over the 1920s), it sacrifices some context and leaves out big chunks of information: The second Nobel, for example, comes out of the blue, because we’ve seen Marie mourning her dead husband and embroiled in her scandal without any indication that she’s also been doing groundbreaking work in chemistry.
(And while a measure of invention is par for the course in films about real people, it’s disconcerting that Marie and Pierre’s biggest argument comes after he returns from accepting the Nobel Prize and she screams at him for going and basking in the glory without her. In fact, neither of them attended the ceremony, although they both went and delivered their Nobel lecture two years later.)
Again, you could argue that fudging some facts and overstating others might fit the memories of a dying woman. And it’s impossible to deny the fury but also the heart that Pike finds in an obsessive woman who never lets down her guard because of the childhood trauma she hides behind it. Her Marie Curie is a force of nature who is always painfully aware that many of those around her use her gender to deny her true value, and Pike never apologizes for her or winks at the audience.
When she mutters that she’s spent her life “surrounded by death and radiation, and they’ve brought me very little happiness,” you might cringe a bit at the line itself, but you’ll believe the weariness in Pike’s voice and the sadness in her eyes. The heart of “Radioactive” lies there, even if the film sometimes feels determined to make you look somewhere else.