In Schull you’d buy a top and everyone would know. How could anyone get away with murder?

A Murder in West Cork is the second of two new series about the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case

Sophie Toscan du Plantier. ‘Our wish was to give to her a real place in the story.’ Photograph: Netflix

Sophie Toscan du Plantier. ‘Our wish was to give to her a real place in the story.’ Photograph: Netflix

 

On the morning of December 23rd, 1996, Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found murdered in a lane near Schull, in west Co Cork. She was 39 years old and a regular visitor to Ireland from Paris, where she lived with her husband, a celebrated film-maker, and 13-year-old son, Pierre Louis Baudey-Vignaud.

“More so in Ireland than a lot of other countries, Christmas is such a family time,” says Sarah Lambert, the producer of Netflix’s new documentary, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork (not to be confused with Jim Sheridan’s new documentary about the case, Murder at the Cottage). “I know a lot of married couples that will separate and go back to their parents. People were flabbergasted that she, a mother, would be there by herself so late in December.”

The location was so remote, the community so tight-knit, that such violence seemed incongruous. It was expected there would be a swift resolution. In a place where you couldn’t buy a new cardigan without everyone knowing about it, how would anyone get away with murder?

Entombed under the speculations, a deeper question has gone undisturbed: who was Sophie Toscan du Plantier before she was a victim? Who was she when she was a human being?

But the case has never been solved. Some of this is because of the situation, as described by Det Eugene Gilligan. These were the worst possible crime-scene circumstances: outdoors, in the middle of a road, when the Garda forensic investigators could not get to the scene for several hours, and in the middle of what could sometimes be a community culture of staying quiet. So the mystery has clung on for 25 years.

But, entombed under the speculations, a deeper question has gone undisturbed: who was Sophie Toscan du Plantier before she was a victim? Who was she when she was a human being?

“People were fascinated,” says Lambert, who grew up in Ireland and was a child when the murder happened. “Partly because Sophie was really beautiful. But beautiful women in stories always have to be very simple.”

Toscan du Plantier was a complicated person – Gothic in her sensibilities, dark and witty in her interests, as described by her cousin Frédéric Gazeau, an associate producer on the documentary. She was a film-maker herself and was talking to friends before she was killed about starting a project on bodily fluids: breast milk, semen, blood.

Gazeau, when he became involved in the film, had “only three requests. My wish was to give to Sophie a real place in the story, to have a balanced treatment between the main suspect and the victim. The second request was not to show the body of Sophie. I didn’t want to be involved in a voyeuristic project. The third was to treat the story with dignity and humanity – to talk about emotions rather than evidence.”

The west Cork scenery. ‘The landscape becomes a character.’ Photograph: Netflix
‘The landscape becomes a character.’: Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s home in west Co Cork. Photograph: Netflix

Unsolved murders pull the attention towards the vital missing puzzle piece, the underinterpreted clue. But it’s hard to play armchair detective and empathise at the same time. What’s fascinating about this documentary is that it manages to elicit both responses by turns.

The executive producer is Simon Chinn, the double-Oscar-winning documentary producer behind Man on Wire and My Scientology Movie (which shares this project’s director, John Dower). Speaking from London, he describes the process of humanising the story. “It’s such a visual story. The landscape becomes a character – it sounds like a cliche but it really does.”

That sheds its own light on Sophie’s idiosyncrasy: “The view from her window in Toormore [an outcrop 10km west of Schull] is incredibly stark; it is just so isolated. You would have to be someone who was part of that landscape to love it there.”

Fundamental to rebuilding Toscan du Plantier as a character is what we see of her family; they are, in the Tolstoy sense, just another happy family, very close. “She was much more than a cousin,” Gazeau says. “She was one of my best friends. I saw her two or three times a week. I slept at her house because her, her son and me, we were like a trio.” The devastation her son describes of losing her in his teens is so hard to hear. But all this goes to show is that Tolstoy is an idiot, since there is nothing ordinary about them.

As the documentary progresses, it becomes a subtle but searching inquiry into grief, whose entire focus is the particularity of the lost person. The victim becomes three-dimensional again, her character restored. Yet, unavoidably, Sophie’s loved ones cannot rest until they know who murdered her. “Justice is abstract when it’s not your loss,” Gazeau says, “but for a family it is something in your blood. We have to go to claim justice to the end. We have no choice.”

Ian Bailey. Photograph: Netflix
Ian Bailey in the late 1990s. Photograph: Netflix

There is an antagonist in this story, of course. The main suspect, the journalist and poet Ian Bailey, is an extraordinary character. He was a person of interest to the Garda from the start. But the director of public prosecutions was never satisfied that there was enough evidence to bring him to trial. 

Bailey, who was convicted in France in his absence, and without legal representation, of Toscan du Plantier’s murder, was never charged in Ireland despite being twice arrested, and he has repeatedly denied any involvement in the killing. 

Bailey appears in the documentary – he seems almost proud of his status as a suspicious figure. (He has since called Sophie: A Murder in West Cork “poisonous propaganda” that sets out to demonise him.) He also agreed to be interviewed in a podcast about the murder three years ago, and comes off straight out of Agatha Christie, desperate to get attention for a crime he insists he did not commit.

French justice has a different evidence threshold – one journalist describes their requirements as more like a “bouquet of proof” – and neither the family nor the French judicial system could ever understand why Bailey was not put on trial in Ireland. In 2007, Sophie’s uncle set up the Association for the Truth about the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, whose success is detailed in the third episode.

But as Chinn says: “We’re not here to do the job of the police or the lawyers. We have to live in our own uncertainty. We have to live with the fact that we’ll never actually know what happened.” Liberated from the “what?”, this true crime instead asks “who?” – Guardian

Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is on Netflix from June 30th

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