Marjane Satrapi has lived a life that seems impossible on paper. It's been on paper, too.
In 2000, Satrapi released her acclaimed autobiography Persepolis, a comic book that chronicled her adolescence and young adulthood in post-revolution Iran and Austria (where she was briefly homeless and almost died of pneumonia) before settling in France. Satrapi was the last person her beloved uncle wished to see before he was executed as a political prisoner.
In the 20 years since Persepolis, now taught (and banned) in American schools, Satrapi has become a director of movies starring Ryan Reynolds (2014's The Voices) and Rosamund Pike in the new period drama Radioactive from Amazon Studios.
But despite her own life of adversity, tragedy, and triumph, Satrapi remains modest, especially when she considers the life of her latest subject: Two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. "Marie is a genius and I am not," Satrapi tells Inverse. "And she's brilliant. I'm aware of that."
Streaming now on Amazon Prime is Marjane Satrapi's third live-action feature, Radioactive. An adaptation of Lauren Redniss' 2010 graphic novel, the movie stars Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie during her life as a Polish immigrant in Paris where she conducts groundbreaking work that alters the course of the 20th century. The film also details her marriage to physicist Pierre Curie, her affair with the married Paul Langevin, and other events that factor in Curie's struggle to achieve recognition in male-dominated fields.
In developing the theory of radioactivity and discovering the elements polonium and radium, Madame Curie rocked the world to become the first woman to win not one but two Nobel Prizes. But Radioactive challenges its beloved central subject. The film grapples with the fallout of Curie's work, which has been both life-saving and life-destroying.
"You can't talk about the science in a film about Marie Curie without the aftermath," Satrapi says. "The discoveries she made changed the face of the world of the 20th century." While the work of the Curies has been used in cancer treatment, which has saved countless lives and is still used today, their work also led to the nuclear weapons that killed thousands in Japan in World War II.
Satrapi knows the Curies were not involved in the Manhattan Project. Pierre was killed in a horse-drawn cart accident in 1906, and Marie died in 1934, likely due to prolonged radiation exposure. But her film still ponders their role, however benevolent their intentions.
"Marie and Pierre were probably the most decent people in the world," Satrapi says. "When they discovered radium and polonium, instead of taking a paycheck, they were like, 'It belongs to everyone.' It's more a question of us what we do [with science]."
Adds Satrapi, "Human beings do not always use [science] for the best. We have to ask ourselves, and I hope people ask, about the ethical sciences. Human beings are complex. In the blink of an eye, we are destroyers. This is who we are."
The director says she struggled with not just telling Curie's story, but telling it in a "new way." The 1943 film Madame Curie, with Greer Garson in an Oscar-nominated performance, and the 1977 miniseries starring Jane Lapotaire, were touchstones for Satrapi.
"I thought everybody knew about her life, including myself," she says. "And then I started studying her and then I realized I knew five percent. I just knew the big line: She was the only person in the world to win Nobel Prizes in two fields. I did not know who she was, that she [endured] racism, what she did for the first World War."
Then came the revelation: What she had in common with Curie.
"Like me, she had to leave her own country in her early twenties to come to Paris to do what she wants to do, which she was not able to do in her own country," Satrapi says. "That was a point I could lean on. She is much more fierce and much more everything than I am, but there are places I could relate to her. I can only imagine that it was very, very hard for her."
Late in the film, French nationalists protest outside her door, at night, keeping her daughters awake. "It makes an echo of the world today," explains the director. "You have Trump in the U.S. and these populist leaders in Europe. It's like, the more connected we are, the more we need to hate each other. Which is quite bizarre."
Behind the scenes, the film took inspiration for the scene right outside the set. "My sound designer was taking the train coming into London. He was looking at the slogans of the protests of Nigel Farage. We just took the slogans of Nigel Farage and [put them] in 1911. 'England for English,' blah blah blah. Unfortunately, it is accurate."
Such nationalism is harrowing to Satrapi. Her graphic novel — a "bourgeois" term she dislikes ("It's called comics! 'Graphic novel' sounds sexual, I never called myself a graphic novelist") — was released a year before 9/11.
"The time I wrote Persepolis in was funny," Satrapi remembers. "The situation of the world was quite okay. I thought by the time the book would come out, there wouldn't be any need for it. And then George Bush became President."
She blames Bush for Trump: "Trump is such a monster that, in comparison, George Bush looks like Jesus Christ. But he was a hellish President. He created the insecurity the world is living in today. [That's when] I realized the book needed to be read. It makes me unhappy the situation has become worse."
But Satrapi continues to mine hope from Marie Curie. "She's kind of a weird person. We love her oddity," Satrapi says. In her collaboration with Rosamund Pike, the two pored over Curie's diaries and personal letters to get an even deeper sense of the person behind the brains.
"We [didn't want] to tone down her oddity and make her a fantastic woman who always does what she's supposed to do. She talks about radium, the most peculiar element because it doesn't behave as it should. She is the most peculiar element. She never behaved as she should. We really tried to embrace who she was."
Radioactive is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.