If nothing else, Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive does find ways to visually complicate the usual biopic drabness. With cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the closest thing the digital era has to a Jack Cardiff, Satrapi shakes up the typical browns and grays of period biography with moments of resplendent color that pulsates in hues of green as if the film were coated in radium. Yet the resplendently chromatic images and postmodern flourishes only call further attention to how unilluminating the film’s biography is, a boilerplate summary of facts made strange by the attempts to add commentary to Marie Curie’s life.

Structured as a deathbed hallucination as the scientist’s life flashes before her eyes, Radioactive unfurls at a frantic pace. In the opening of the flashback, Marie (Rosamund Pike) is walking down the street with her nose in a book and collides with fellow physicist Pierre (Sam Riley), who can scarcely contain his excitement that she is reading a book on microbiology. Before this nerdy meet-cute can go anywhere, however, Marie sprints away to get to a meeting at the local university, where she must defend her lab’s funding to a group of interchangeable male administrators who huff and scoff at this pretty lady and her silly aspirations to do science. Later, she reunites with Pierre and the two engage in an extended courtship in which they speak rapidly about their aspirations and setbacks, with Marie routinely monologuing about coming to love the man while lamenting how she must work with him to validate her own research. The film sprints through such moments, reducing characters and interactions to their simplest and most direct until seemingly every line of dialogue is like watching the characters sum up the movie that they’re in.

Adding to this discombobulating effect is the way that Satrapi sprints through life events using jump cuts that leapfrog around signifiers of various key points in Marie’s life Consider one of her childbirths: the film tilts up from a scene of lovemaking into an animated image of an atom pulsating before cutting to Marie vomiting from pregnancy sickness to her screaming in childbirth to her rocking the baby well after delivery. This method could be said to be a means of not lagging on each touchstone of Marie’s life, but in practice it only lends greater emphasis to the usual biopic focus on significant moments, effectively sprinting between major life markers in such a way that everything becomes parody, Walk Hard mixed with the frenetic style of Moulin Rouge.

Some of the visual ambition used to animate this series of major events is downright disastrous. At the height of the Curies’ fame, after their joint Nobel Prize win for physics for the discovery of radioactivity, Pierre is killed in a horse carriage accident that Satrapi films like a Tony Scott action sequence, with a bizarre number of edits that capture the poor man’s body disappearing under hooves from every conceivable angle. And for a film that begins with the usual demonstrative condemnations of institutional sexism gatekeeping a genius like Marie, Radioactive regularly sidelines any actual analysis of her scientific research to focus harder on her love affairs, which are laboriously over-directed in hothouse melodrama style. If you’ve ever wanted to see a post-coital Marie Curie lying naked in a field with her naughty bits tastefully obscured, here’s your film. That’s not to say that it’s wrong to show the subject’s personal, romantic side, of course, but it’s odd to treat the pioneering, still-relevant discoveries of Marie Curie as interesting distractions from a core interest in Marie’s romantic life, especially when her post-Pierre affairs are shown to be the result of mass prejudices against career women.

And when Radioactive does deign to truly consider Marie’s work, it does so in bafflingly accusatory fashion. When Pierre goes to Sweden to collect their joint Nobel Prize, he delivers a speech about science’s capacity to enlighten as well as destroy as the image cuts to a re-enactment of the eventual Hiroshima bombing. Later, the film goes fully postmodern as Marie wanders an increasingly frenzied dreamscape where she is confronted with the unintended and far-ranging side effects of discovering radioactivity, including a burn ward filled with the rotting victims of Chernobyl. Inexplicably, the film puts Marie on trial for her discoveries, not so much considering the unpredictable consequences of scientific progress as actively weighing her direct responsibility for the misuse of her mere discovery of a fact of the natural world conducted well after her death.

A baffling mishmash of tones and aesthetics, Radioactive is one of the most enervating biopics in years.
30 %
Unstable Core
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