Marie Curie “wasn’t always very nice,” according to Marjane Satrapi of the hero of her new film Radioactive.
The most famous woman scientist in history had to fight her corner in what was – and still is – a man’s world, said Satrapi, best known as the maker of the Oscar-nominated animated classic, Persepolis.
“How are you supposed to become Marie Curie if you are cute, gentle and terribly nice?” the acclaimed Iranian-born graphic novelist and film-maker said.
“When you were as focused as Curie was, you don’t have the time to be touchy feely … and people accept that [single-mindedness] much less from a woman,” she insisted.
Satrapi, 50, was forever destined to make a film about the Polish-born physicist and chemist, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the only person to have won it in different fields.
“She was a huge figure for me from my childhood because she was the woman my mother wanted me to be,” Satrapi said in her Paris studio.
She was brought up to hero worship Curie and the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, she added.
However, researching the film, Satrapi discovered that while Curie – played by the British Gone Girl star Rosamund Pike – “was a woman of great integrity … but she he wasn’t always very nice.”
She couldn’t afford to be given the enormous obstacles the woman who discovered both radium and polonium had to overcome.
“Since science depends on logic, they made out that women were too emotional to study science, that they are all hormones and feelings,” Satrapi said.
But through her heroic and action-packed life, “Curie became the living example that it was completely possible – which is very important,” the director insisted.
“I’m for feminism by actions rather than words,” Satrapi added. “It’s no good to have slogans if there is not action behind them. I prefer women who do things – it is only by our actions that we’ll become men’s equals.”
Curie was “not only the equal, but most of the time was better” than the men in her field.
Radioactive, which is due to be released across much of Europe later his month, tells her remarkable story through the research Curie and her husband Pierre (played by English actor Sam Riley) carried out on radioactivity, discoveries that would lead to breakthroughs in medicine but also to the atomic bomb.
Satrapi said Curie was a powerful symbol at a time when women have found their voice again with the #MeToo movement.
“Things are going to change but we cannot sweep away 5,000 years of patriarchy in two days,” said the illustrator-turned-director.
“It’s great that women are speaking up [but] we kept our mouths shut for so long that it has become a bit too much … We have to find a balance,” she said.
Yet there is so much still to do, particularly about how women are represented on the screen.
“Half of the Earth’s population are women, so it’s normal that half of stories should be about us – yet that is not the case,” Satrapi argued.
“And when we see women it is always in relation to a man: as someone’s wife or their mother,” she added.
That said, she has no intention of spending the rest of her career making films “about the long list of all the extraordinary women” who have been under-appreciated.
“I’ve made films about men too … It’s Curie who interested me,” she said.