Marjane Satrapi: ‘I did not want a monkey Madame Curie’
The Persepolis writer and director on growing up rebellious in Iran, and her new film Radioactive about Marie Curie
Marjane Satrapi: “I’m a 20th-century woman: I smoke; I’m not on social media; I eat everything.” Photograph: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty
Catherine Deneuve calls her breathtaking. The Simpsons immortalised her by having her punch a hole in a grocery bag. She won best first film at the César Awards with a movie that accounted for 40 per cent of the French box office that year. She has won the Angoulême Coup de Coeur Award at the International Comics Festival three times.
Marjane Satrapi detonated on to the cultural landscape in 2008 when her movie adaptation of Persepolis, the graphic novel that charted her early punk years in Iran and Vienna, won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Possessed with a bracing intellect, quick wit and surprising warmth, she was an immediate hit with the press and an immediate ban in her native Iran. The intervening years have, happily, done nothing at all to earth her spark. She even still wears the same shock of red lipstick.
“Lipstick is the best,” she says, with appropriately affirmative hand gestures. “I started wearing lipstick because I talked a lot as a child and my mother started putting lipstick on me because each time she put it on me and I would stop talking because I thought it would go away or smudge. So she kept putting on lipstick just to make me shut up. And I’ve been wearing lipstick since I was five.”
The lipstick has not done the trick. Marjane Satrapi has plenty to say. Some hours ahead of the Dublin premiere of Radioactive, her inventive new biopic of Marie Curie, she talks like she does everything else: at breakneck speed, as if each word might be her last.
On cigarettes (after I remind her of a time I saw her exhaling into the chimney in a non-smoking London hotel): “Of course I still smoke! What a question! Not only do I smoke but I’ve decided that I will smoke until the last day of my life. I enjoy cigarettes. I’m a 20th-century woman: I smoke; I’m not on social media; I eat everything. I still smoke in my bed, which is the best. I sometimes burn my sheets but I’m very old-fashioned that way.”
On geopolitics: “The problem is worldwide,” says the animator, graphic novelist and filmmaker. “In America you have Trump, in Brazil Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson in UK, Erdogan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel. When the big powers become populist and nationalistic, you end up with a world war. Nationalism is synonymous with war. It’s good to like your country but where you are born doesn’t give the right to f**k everyone else. I still have big faith in human beings. You and I understand each other very well and we look so opposite we could be in the band ABBA.”
‘Punk Is Not Ded’
Satrapi grew up in Tehran, where her father was an engineer and her mother a dress designer. She was the only child in a Marxist family, many in her extended family died violent deaths. She was the last visitor to see her uncle Anoosh, a political prisoner following his return from exile in the Soviet Union, ahead of his execution. As a child she protested against the Shah.
Sadly, her non-conforming family, despite the best efforts, ended up living under the oppressive regime of the ayatollahs. It was a culture shock for the young Marjane, who had grown up idolising her older female relatives, including a grandmother whose motto was: laws are for idiots.
“My personality is a lot to do with the women of my family,” says Satrapi. “Not only my grandmother but her two cousins. They had legs that looked like parentheses from horseriding. Both of them got married for six months just to get pregnant and then kick the men out. They smoked cigarettes and they would always say whatever the thing you shouldn’t say was. Then the grand aunt of my mother: she always wanted to be a mistress for married men. She said: I don’t want all the shit of cleaning their clothes; I want to be the mistress and get brought out dancing and to restaurants. So these were the women that I loved the most. They were all very old women and I thought they were the coolest people in the world.”
By the time she hit her teens, the young Marji was clashing with the Guardians of the Revolution for her “Punk Is Not Ded” jacket and illegal cassette tapes. “There was a change of politics in my country and suddenly it was written that women were worth half of what men are worth. They tell you that you are worth half of what a man is worth and you know that’s not true. And then you have to try twice as hard to show them.
“The very last time I was in Iran – this is 20 years ago – we have these collective cabs and you go five by five from the queue. And I was the fifth person in the queue and here comes a man and he cuts me off and I pulled him by the arm and I say: it was my turn; you are behind me. And he said: well, I’m a man; I’m busy. And I told him: well, I’m a woman and I’ll shit on your moustache. And the guy became very shy and got out of the cab and I sat in the car and everybody was scared of me. This is the way to do it.”
Worried for her safety, her parents sent the young and rebellious teenager to Austria where she passed her baccalaureate, but not before getting expelled from one school for hitting a teacher.
By her early 20s, she was selling drugs and sharing a squat with eight gay men, an unimaginable twist of fate for a woman whose maternal grandfather was the son of Nasser-al-Din Shah, the Persian emperor from 1848 to 1896. After a bout of pneumonia, Satrapi returned to Tehran and obtained her masters’ degree before relocating to France.
Following the success of the autobiographical Persepolis, as a comic, then a film, Hollywood circled Satrapi to no avail. Those lean Vienna years have, she notes, proved useful.
Dignity and style
“At the end of your life there’s two things that remain: your dignity and your style,” says Satrapi. “I cannot make a film that I wouldn’t even buy a ticket to watch for two hours. Why would I spend three years of my life on that? I want to do a good job. That’s the only thing I’m interested in.
“One time in my whole life I did an illustration for a magazine. And I’m a professional so I know how to make it beautiful. But I knew it was not good. They thought it was great. I knew it was shit. It took me 10 years to forgive myself.
“I know I can live poorly. And if you can accept that you can live poorly then you are free to decide what you do. How many steaks can I eat in one day? How many houses can I live in at the same time? How many cars can I drive at the same time?
“You know dear, I will live maximum another 30 years. So let’s be optimistic and say I’m working for 27 years and let’s say I make a film every three years. So that means nine films. Less than I can count on my two hands. So it has to be something that inspires me.”
The story of two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Sklodowska Curie is something that inspires Satrapi. Some 26 years after she moved to France, the artist and filmmaker has made a film set in her adopted country. And it concerns someone who, like Satrapi, is a celebrated emigre. There are irresistible parallels.
“I can be critical but France is the country that gave me shelter and gave me other possibilities,” she says.
“I owe that country a lot so I have to treat it with respect. But I’m living in France nearly all my adult life so now I can do a French story. Both of us arrived around the same age in our early 20s and both of us could speak French before we arrived in France so we didn’t have to spend time adjusting to the culture. The fact that you come from another country and that Paris gives you the possibility of doing something that you could not do in your own country? I understood.”
Working from a script by Jack Thorne (A Long Way Down, Wonder), in turn adapted from the graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, Radioactive stars Rosamund Pike as Curie and cleverly incorporates the story of the scientist – meeting her husband and lifelong research partner Pierre (Sam Riley), discovering the elements polonium and radium, having two children and winning two Nobel prizes – into a film that considers the larger story of radioactivity.
Cure vs bomb
“When I read the script first I started to think about what happened after her discoveries,” says the director. “I didn’t want to just glorify her. I wanted to think about what we do with scientific discoveries. Because with what she did, yes, we can cure cancer but we also created the atom bomb with the same thing. This is not the responsibility of the scientist; it’s our responsibility.”
Radioactive also incorporates Curie’s affair with Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), a colleague and former pupil of Pierre’s, following her husband’s death. It’s a contemporaneous scandal that saw the scientist hounded in the popular press for being a Pole and (erroneously, as it happens) a Jew.
“Even me,” says Satrapi. “I didn’t know anything about that. I only discovered that there was a specific campaign against her making the film. Nobody likes to say well that’s how the country was; it’s a part of history. You don’t study that part of the story. You study that she was a genius, that she’s the only person in the world who has two Nobel prizes in different fields.”
Most of all, Radioactive is a love story powered by a remarkable chemistry between Pike and Riley. “Rosamund was a perfect match because I did not want a monkey Madame Curie,” says Satrapi. It was more about keeping her spirit. I needed a woman who is sharp-minded, who was fierce in her eyes, so that you could really believe that she could be this person. And Rosamund: she understands science.
“Sam Riley came and we did a chemistry test – because Marie Curie is not very lovely and she doesn’t want to be very lovely. She’s a scientist. And when we did this chemistry test, I realised that Sam was very amused by her. And I loved that relationship. It felt like the perfect match.
“In real life Pierre Curie was just gentleness and very open-minded. Imagine! It’s the end of the 19th century – he wanted to marry a woman who is equal to him. Who is better than him. Even in 2020, there are not many men who want a woman that is their equal. They still want to f**king dominate us. So imagine this guy 140 years ago.”