Marie Noëlle’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge is a new biopic about the Polish physicist and chemist. In 2009, she was named “Most Inspirational Female Scientist of All Time,” in a poll sponsored by the French cosmetic company L’Oréal. Marie Curie (1867-1934), born in Warsaw as Maria Salomea Skodowska, enjoyed worldwide acclaim for most of her life, and she used that status to fund her research and her humanitarian efforts. Noëlle’s sumptuous film touches on her celebrity, and on Marie’s habit of exerting herself to the point of exhaustion, but it is mostly concerned with her life as a wife, lover and single mother.
The Sorbonne student who at first rejected Pierre Curie’s affection because she wanted to live and work in Poland, would no doubt be amused by L’Oréal’s poll. Marie was not a woman who fussed over her appearance; while she is well-turned out in Marie Curie, an apocryphal story has it that after her marriage, she refashioned her simple wedding attire to serve as a lab coat. When Marie visited the U.S. in 1921, she had long been a naturalized citizen of France, but as Noëlle indicates, the state had conferred no honors on its two-time Nobel Prize winner. Marie also needed radium to continue her research; the element she had isolated and named had become too expensive for her to purchase. Missy Meloney, a prominent American journalist (and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt), came to Marie’s rescue with a $100,000 check.
Noëlle’s movie, which unfolds over six years, beginning in 1905, is in French, a language Marie mastered as a young student. She and Pierre (1859-1906) had married in 1895, and by this time, Marie had given birth to their two daughters, Irène (1897-1956) and Eve (1904-2007). Eugene Curie, Pierre’s father, a medical doctor, had delivered their eldest. The couple shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Henri Becquerel in 1903, for the discovery of radioactivity. Marie’s second Nobel Prize was in chemistry, in 1911; that award was for her isolation of metallic radium and her measurement of its atomic mass.
Marie Curie opens with glimpses of the family before Pierre’s demise in 1906; it then moves to Eugene joining the family to care for the children, although this is not apparent. He had recently become a widower, and Marie, who suffered from depression all of her life, needed his support after Pierre’s death. The film chronicles at great length Marie’s affair with the noted physicist Paul Langevin in 1910, that led to the Nobel Committee’s suggestion that Marie not attend the ceremony in Stockholm. Her friend Albert Einstein encouraged her to go, and the film ends with Marie’s appearance there in 1911.
Noëlle’s movie is beautiful, replete with period details and her eye for color. Karolina Gruszka, a Polish actress (who speaks French), gives an excellent performance as Marie, as does French actor Charles Berling (Elle, 2016), who appears briefly as Pierre Curie. (Pierre died when he was hit by a horse-drawn carriage.) Arieh Worthalter is credible in a thankless role as Langevin, whose many contributions to science included a 1916 U.S. patent (with Constantin Chilowsky) that led to the development of sonar equipment. In Marie Curie, he is seen mostly as a lab assistant (he was Pierre’s student). At one point, he comments upon his testing of the air at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Left unexplained, it refers to his role in an experiment that measured atmospheric radiation.
Marie Curie unfolds mostly in a laboratory that Noëlle carefully recreated for the movie. It looks like the iconic courtyard “Shed,” the Curies’ first lab, although they were only there until 1904. Other scenes are set in the Curie home, which was south of Paris; after Pierre’s death, Marie lived there with Irène (Sasha Crapanzano, Rose Montron), Eve (Adele Schmitt), and her father-in-law (André Wilms). Noëlle apparently drew from Eve Curie’s biography of her mother (Madame Curie, 1937) in which she wrote that their grandfather raised them, and ran the household—and that Irène assumed his duties after he died. Bronya (Izabela Kuna), who appears with no introduction and is often with Marie, is her elder sister.
Marie Curie is impressionistic in style, so that while Marie is pictured mixing a vat of chemicals outdoors, or writing in a journal by the blue light of a radioactive test tube, or distractedly speaking to her daughters, her mind obviously on her work, the nature of that work goes unexplained. Her bouts of depression are hinted at, as is the racism she was subject to in France, and the misogyny she grappled with everywhere in an era when women were not accepted in scientific circles. Eve notes in her biography that if her mother was being criticized, the French press were always careful to mention that she was a foreigner, but if she was being celebrated, they claimed her as their own.
Watching Marie Curie is very much like perusing a lavish art book in which the images are accompanied by the barest details needed to understand them. Noëlle has Marie supine and sunk in the bathtub, the burnished wooden slats a complement to the reddish hair floating around her head, or Marie and Langevin underwater, swimming in a gorgeous sun-dappled sea. (While Marie liked to swim, this is an imagined event; the conference they attend in this scene was in Brussels.) What is not apparent is how this leitmotif of water explains Marie’s character or predicament. This is the case in a split screen sequence as well, a daring stylistic decision in a period film. Within the frames, Marie is engaged in laborious tasks, as she might have been while isolating radium from pitchblende, but the scenes neither represent contemporaneous events, nor do they juxtapose various aspects of Marie’s personality.
Noëlle makes her writer-director debut with Marie Curie that, astonishing as it may seem, is one of only two feature-length theatrical films about the scientist. (The first is Mervyn LeRoy’s 1943 Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson.) In preparation for making the film, she visited Warsaw, Marie’s birthplace, and spoke with Irène’s daughter, nuclear physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot, who married Langevin’s grandson. Noëlle also read Marie’s diaries, which are still radioactive, at Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Audiences would do well to read a biography before screening the film, one that speaks to the character of a woman who took to the battlefields during World War I with a portable X-ray machine she had fashioned, future Nobel prize winner Irène at her side.