I’m gradually warming up to the idea that the biopic as a genre is being reinvigorated by recent formal experiments. Besides stray outliers like Ed Wood & Kinsey, I’ve never especially cared about the traditional biopic as a storytelling medium, but there have been a few recent releases that have shaken up my prejudice against the genre’s tendency for birth-to-death, Wikipedia-synopsis biography. Last year’s woefully overlooked Tom of Finland was a lyrical, playful experiment in time & tone. The oil painting-animated Loving Vincent adapted the genre to an entirely new visual medium. Straight Outta Compton was a glorious indulgence in highly stylized spectacle. Love & Mercy recalled the experimental casting of past biopic works like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. It’s unclear exactly where the recent French production Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge falls within this trend. Covering only the perilous five-year span between the infamous scientist’s two Nobel Prize wins, Marie Curie isn’t exactly the birth-to-death, Wikipedia-in-motion biopic cliché we’ve been trained to expect. However, it does feel line an adaptation of a singular subsection of the historical figure’s Wikipedia page: Scandals.
Opening the film with Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize in 1903 is a convenient way of introducing the audience to the bullet points of her legacy. It’s announced up front that she’s the first woman to ever earn the prize, thanks to her discovery of & experiments with radium in tandem with her lab partner/husband. The earliest crisis in the film is in the ways this sudden fame & attention distract from the couple’s radiation research, which is essentially aimed to cure cancer. Things get much more complicated from there when the husband dies in a freak carriage accident and his absence puts the research project in peril. For the first half of the film, Marie Curie struggles to establish her right to be included & respected in a male-dominated, stubborn scientific community that sees radium research as a fad & her deceased husband as the true genius in the family. The second half of the film is concerned with a different matter entirely: Curie’s evolving love life. After proving herself worthy among her colleagues, she finds her research at risk again because of a love affair she sparks with a married man, a scandal that’s gleefully eaten up by newspaper gossip columns. The movie is unsure which Marie Curie it’s more interested in, the scientific mind or the scandalous sexual being, and feels clearly bifurcated in that uncertainty.
There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as “my beaming radium queen,” his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her “a laboratory rat.” It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so. In a way, that exact unease is the film’s contribution to the evolution of the modern biopic. Its flowing transitions between scenes and occasional stylistic flourishes (like backwards rain) recall the art direction of a music video, but not enough to feel like any kind of unique breakthrough in form. The film is most remarkable in its willingness to avoid a traditional birth-to-death biopic narrative to instead focus on a steamy, scandalous romance that almost derailed its historical subject’s legacy.
There’s nothing wrong with an occasional trashy period piece romance and I enjoyed the movie as such. I don’t know how helpful that indulgence is in reshaping the art of the biopic, though. It’s also questionable in its level of professional respect it affords one of history’s most notable female scientists. Maybe, in this case, a more traditional Wikipedia-in-motion biography where the affair were a mere footnote would have been the more tasteful, appropriate route, but the film is still enjoyable all the same.