Two-time Nobel laureate Marie Curie discovered radioactivity and paved the way to modernity. Now director Marjane Satrapi is setting a cinematic monument with “Radioactive”. What does she find so moving about her? What can we learn from this self-determined woman?
Marjane Satrapi, scientist Marie Curie has been part of your life since your childhood. Your mother used to tell you: You can become a Marie Curie or a Simone de Beauvoir. What did these women represent for you at the time?
For me, both were role models of emancipation and self-determination. With these role models, my mother made me realise that I didn’t have to marry or become a mother or a housewife if I didn’t want to. She said, you can be who you want to be. And since Marie Curie made a breakthrough discovery and is the only woman in history to have won two Nobel prizes in two different categories, I knew that it was possible.
You could have made a film about Simone de Beauvoir too. Why did you choose Marie Curie?
I like Simone de Beauvoir and I read her classic “The Second Sex” very early, but Marie Curie is closer to me. She’s an action feminist. Her feminism is demonstrated by her life, not by grand words or theories. She has opened up many paths for women: She was not only the first professor at the Sorbonne, but also the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize – twice. But being a woman never really played an overriding role for her. She was only interested in science. And in this field she was the best, better than all the men around her.
Have you discovered aspects of her life that you didn’t know about before?
Of course, a lot of them. If someone is as famous as Marie Curie, then you almost forget that behind this scientific icon is a complex person. Working on the film was the first time that I got to know many facets of Marie Curie’s personality, for example that she was a very talented illustrator and really did everything with unbridled passion.
You grew up in Iran and came to France at the same age as Marie Curie from Poland. Does this experience of exile connect you?
We both came here at the age of twenty and both left our homeland because we couldn’t achieve what we wanted there. That does indeed unite us. However, the parallel ends here. Marie was a genius, and I’m not.
You addressed your life story in the “Persepolis” comic, which became a global success. What did growing up in a dictatorship teach you about self-determination?
After the Islamic revolution there was a ban on everything! Was I less free in my thoughts? No, I wasn’t. Did I become a stupid person? No, I didn’t. Because no matter how much they controlled me, they couldn’t penetrate my thoughts. These belong only to me, and they will remain under my control if I so decide. And I can only decide that if I practise it. So self-determination is up to us. Everyone has a choice.
In France, there has been much discussion in recent months about the theory of the female gaze. What do you think about it? Does a woman make a better film about a woman than a man?
No, I don’t hold with these theories. The writer Nathalie Sarraute once said: “Literature has no gender.” And that’s true. The same applies to genius and intelligence. Let’s take Flaubert, whom I love: He was a single man, and yet he wrote a book in which one recognises oneself as a woman. Moreover, people should stop acting as if it’s admirable when a woman makes a film, as if women were somehow less capable or stupid. This should be taken for granted these days.
Still, it seems as though you’re observing Marie Curie with a woman’s eye. Most men portray biopic heroines as beautiful, charming creatures who also happen to be brilliant and successful. Your Marie, on the other hand, appears as she probably was: a bit blunt, incredibly stubborn, very convinced of herself, fully focused on herself and her work...
Of course. There’s no other way. No one wins two Nobel prizes by baking cakes and combing her hair all day while singing. If you want to achieve something, you have to be tough, focused and uncompromising. In men, you accept that, you even find it admirable, in women, it’s a problem. People want to keep the myth of women alive – women also want that. I really fought with some people because they thought Marie wasn’t likeable enough. I then explained: If she were likeable, she might have become your wife, but she wouldn’t have been the most famous scientist of all time.
Her husband, Pierre Curie, is very likeable in the film. And very open. Was Pierre Curie the real feminist of the family?
Yes, you could say that. To marry a woman who was his equal, perhaps even his superior, to conduct research with her and to accept that she was more famous than him, was incredibly modern and unconventional in those days. This is still difficult for some men to accept today.
The pair of researchers discovered the element radium and radioactivity that not only gave the world the radio and radiotherapy , but also the atomic bomb. At the end of your film, Marie asks Pierre: “We did good, didn't we?” Was she aware of the danger?
Of course. Science brings something new to the world and hopes to improve it, but at the same time it knows perfectly well that people are capable of both the best and the worst and that a discovery can be used in either direction. Pierre and Marie were aware of this, as Pierre’s speech on the occasion of the Nobel Prize proves: He called on people to be mindful. They both knew their work could also become Frankenstein’s monster. But responsibility for the use of their discovery lies not with them, but with society.
At Curie’s time, society was enthusiastic about science. It was firmly believed that progress was a good thing. Today, many seem to doubt that. What do you think?
I continue to believe in progress. Just think of the internet. How great is it that I have a whole encyclopaedia in my phone instead of having to drag twenty thick volumes around in my bag. I don’t think much of social media, but I don’t have to participate. With progress, as with everything: You have a choice. People are responsible for what they make of things.
About Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi (51) is an Iranian-French comic artist and filmmaker. Satrapi grew up in Tehran, studied in Vienna and emigrated to France in 1994. She gained global notoriety for her autobiography in comic format Persepolis, which was sold over a million times. The eponymous animated film was nominated for an Oscar and won the European Film Prize and the most important French film prize, the César. Your fourth film “Radioactive” with Rosamunde Pike in the leading role will be screened in European cinemas in the summer of 2020. Marjane Satrapi is married and lives in Paris.