A life cut short

Anyone who read a newspaper in Ireland or France at the end of 1996 learned that Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the wife of a French…

Anyone who read a newspaper in Ireland or France at the end of 1996 learned that Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the wife of a French film producer, travelled alone to her isolated, two-storey white house at Dunmanus West outside Schull in the week before Christmas. On the morning of December 23rd, her lifeless body was found on the frozen path below her house, her head smashed by a stone.

Nearly three years have passed, and Sophie's killer is still at large. Her husband's frustrated outbursts against the Garda Siochana have made headlines. So have interviews with the self-proclaimed "prime suspect".

Yet for all the attention devoted to the crime, the public knows little of what mattered to the victim and to those she loved - that she looked like her great aunt Alice, the one who married a marquis, that she was deeply attached to her parents' native Lozere region in south central France, was confirmed in Notre Dame Cathedral and passed her Baccalaureat at a Dominican convent in Rome, where she started a lasting friendship with a Mexican girl named Gina.

Sophie remained natural in the artificial world of cinema, refusing to wear make-up, choosing the simplest clothes and decoration for the homes she lived in. Her family compare her west Cork home - where she had her bed raised on a platform so she could see the lighthouse at night - to a monastery.


Sophie attended art exhibitions almost religiously, forcing her adolescent son and stepson to go with her. Will any book record that she charmed two French presidents? Or that on her way to Ireland on that fatal trip she stopped at the maternity clinic to hold her new-born nephew Baptiste? She repeated then that she wanted to have a baby girl.

Whatever the difficulties of her marriage with Daniel Toscan du Plantier, one of her last telephone calls from Ireland was to their gardener at Ambax, near Toulouse, ordering a linden tree as a Christmas gift for her husband, to be planted outside their bedroom window.

It would take volumes of such details to portray a life brutally interrupted, and even then, as her father Georges Bouniol was quick to tell me, it would be only an outline, an empty silhouette of his daughter. Yet somehow, one feels, people ought to know that she read Rimbaud and Proust and Brendan Behan, that she wrote constantly, compulsively, that her killer also robbed the world of a promising woman of letters.

Those who knew her best describe a woman of rare physical and spiritual beauty - self-assured, but privately doubting her own talent, generous and loyal in friendship, demanding and often unhappy in love.

Last Sunday, her father Georges and her mother Marguerite Bouniol, Marie Madeleine Opalka, the aunt who was her confidante and close friend, and her uncle Michel and Aunt Marie-France attended a memorial Mass in Goleen to mark the third anniversary of Sophie's death. "Every year, we feel torn apart when we arrive and see Sophie's house from a distance, overlooking the valley, waiting for us," Marguerite Bouniol told me. "Every year, our hope of seeing justice done decreases."

"We were her parents," Georges Bouniol, a retired dentist, said, his voice breaking with emotion when we met in the bourgeois Paris apartment where Sophie grew up. "We made her. We could not follow her, we could not protect her . . . " He is reluctant to speak of his grief, loath to see his only daughter reduced to a news story.

Sophie's mother, a small, energetic woman as brave as she is wounded, has a different philosophy. "I want to talk about her, because I don't want us to forget her," she says as we watch a video taken on July 28th 1985, Sophie's 28th birthday. The tower of St Eustache Church - where Sophie was baptised and where her family held a memorial service after her death - looms behind her. Sophie looks at the camera, her long, naturally blonde hair blowing in the wind, one moment smiling joyously, the next sad as a Madonna. "Later, her face was thinner," her mother says. "I found her more beautiful at 39, when she had little wrinkles, when her face had more character."

Marie Madeleine Opalka says that Sophie was "the most beautiful baby I have ever seen - absolutely ravishing. From the moment she was born I admired her. I was fascinated by her." Those who knew Sophie often use adjectives of luminosity and weightlessness.

"She was light - she walked on the tip of her feet, as if she were dancing," Opalka continues. The niece she remembers was spirited and passionate, aware of her powers of seduction but playfully detached. "When she arrived somewhere the air vibrated in a special way - there are few people who have such an aura," Opalka says, adding that Sophie had several amities amoureuses - romantic but platonic friendships - with men who admired her.

Her second husband, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, says Sophie was fiercely independent and had "an obsessive sense of mystery. She liked to have lots of secret gardens - even after we married, I'm not sure I knew everything about her."

Through Daniel, Sophie met some of the world's most famous film directors - Satyajit Ray, Constantin Costa-Gavras, Andrzej Wajda. She had a nonchalant way of throwing together a salad late in the evening and making anyone feel at home. Before meeting Sophie, Daniel had been married to the actresses Marie-Christine Barrault and Francesca Comencini.

He lived for 10 years with Isabelle Huppert. But Sophie - the only one who was not an actress - was the greatest star, he says now. Opalka recalls how Sophie caught the eye of the late Francois Mitterrand at a reception. She and Daniel were invited to a private dinner at the Hotel de Ville when Jacques Chirac was still Mayor of Paris, Marguerite Bouniol says.

Sophie told Chirac about the documentary she was making on African art and he asked when it would be broadcast. A few months later, Chirac - by then President of France - sent her a fax to say how much he enjoyed her programme.

Yet despite their celebrity friends and the many glossy photographs of Sophie on Daniel's arm at film festivals and awards ceremonies, she hated media attention. "I had a friend who wanted to do a story on us for Paris Match", Daniel Toscan du Plantier told me in an interview in his office near the Eiffel Tower. "She fled the house, saying, `you'll pay for this some day'. She was right, because when she died, the photos were everywhere - without her." In two of the family's favourite photos of her, Sophie turned her back to the camera.

Daniel prefers one taken in the garden at Ambax in the summer of 1996. Sophie reaches into a wall of ivy (in fact the kitchen window), her blonde hair in an Alice-in-Wonderland plait down her back. In a heartbreaking, hand-written little book she wrote for Sophie, Marguerite Bouniol describes a photo taken at her sister Marie Madeleine's 60th birthday party, two months before Sophie was killed. "One can see only your hair, which lights up the scene all by itself," she wrote. "The Eiffel Tower, a few forms, are in the background . . . only your hair is there, magnificent, luminous. Your face is turned towards the night, your eyes towards the heavens, towards the stars where you would soon be lost!"

Bouniol says that Sophie had "a certain reserve" when talking to her mother, but that she told everything to her aunt Marie Madeleine Opalka, an exuberant woman with a taste for showy hats and jewellery, married to the Polish painter Roman Opalka. Snobbery is the least of the faults that Opalka attributes to Daniel, whom she reproaches for letting Sophie travel to Ireland alone when she was exhausted after completing a television documentary called Le Pli for Arte television.

The family also found it difficult to understand why Daniel did not travel to Ireland after Sophie's death, and how he could bring a young east European secretary home a few months later. He married the secretary on the very day the family dedicated a cross to Sophie in Ireland. In the meantime, the young woman had given birth to a baby daughter named Tosca, a name Sophie wanted for the child she hoped to have.

In the book Marguerite Bouniol wrote in tribute to her daughter, she comments on the tact, kindness and attentiveness shown by local gardai each time the family travels to west Cork. Opalka tells me: "We, Sophie's family, cannot accept that Daniel - who couldn't even be bothered to go there - speaks ill of the Irish police." It was the coroner's late arrival which made it impossible to establish the hour of Sophie's death or conduct DNA tests that might have identified her killer; the police could do nothing until he arrived. "We, the family of Sophie who truly loved her, are grateful to the Irish police," Opalka adds.

But although they dislike one another, Opalka and Daniel Toscan du Plantier use many of the same words about Sophie. Both say they recognised prodigious, untapped talent in her; that she was totally fearless but remained strangely innocent. "Even in her 30s, eternally a young girl," Toscan du Plantier describes her. "Alice in Wonderland . . . she lacked the protective shell the rest of us develop," Opalka says.

SOPHIE Bouniol was divorced and raising her young son alone when Daniel Toscan du Plantier first met her in 1988. She had handled public relations for the French film promotion board Unifrance since 1983, but did not get along with the manager. She intended to resign, according to her mother, but when Daniel Toscan du Plantier became chairman of the board he urged her to stay until she found a new job.

The woman he met was "very beautiful, very difficult," he said. "She looked like an angel, but she had a volcanic character, and easily became aggressive." Opalka disputes this: in the 39 years she knew Sophie, she says, she never saw her angry. If she lost her temper with Daniel, there were good reasons.

"Sophie was impulsive. She had an incredible capacity to break off relationships suddenly," Toscan du Plantier says, citing the way she left her first husband after their son was born. "If she wasn't happy with the way things were, she left. She did it to me often. She just disappeared - I don't know where she went. After a while it became a joke between us. She had an almost mystical ideal of love - extremely demanding. She wasn't someone who had casual affairs. She was very easily disappointed. She wanted a sort of spiritual absolute." Opalka cleared up the mystery of Sophie's disappearances: when she was angry with Daniel, her niece used to come to her home in Geneva.

During the 1989 Cannes film festival, Daniel Toscan du Plantier invited Sophie Bouniol to a dinner hosted in a chateau by Le Monde newspaper. She refused initially, saying she didn't want to mix her work and social life. But since she was responsible for relations with the press, he insisted. When they arrived, the first thing she did was to tear up the place card saying "Toscan du Plantier, Escort". The French cabinet minister seated next to Sophie mistook her for Daniel's former companion, Isabelle Huppert. "He started complimenting her on her performance in (the film) Violette Noziere . She turned bright red and left the table," he recalls. "When she didn't return, I went out to the courtyard and found her, furious. I can still hear her saying, `I am not the clone of your mistresses'. She wanted to walk back to Cannes, but I persuaded her to finish dinner. Later, she insisted that I drop her on the outskirts of Cannes so I wouldn't know where she was staying."

That was how their courtship started. Back in Paris, Toscan du Plantier went to the building where Sophie worked on the Champs-lysees telephoned the cafe downstairs. "She said she didn't have time to see me. I insisted and she said, `All right, but only three minutes'. She remained standing. I said, `What can I do to see you?' I was getting divorced from Francesca Comencini. Sophie said she wouldn't go out with a married man and asked me to send proof to her mother that I was no longer married. I photocopied the lawyer's file. Her mother wrote back saying I had a bad reputation, but that her daughter was old enough to make her own decisions. Then I received a telegram. It said, `Sophie B.' and her phone number."

As the deputy mayor of Paris's 2nd arrondissement, Marguerite Bouniol married her daughter, then 33, to Daniel, then 50, in June 1990. "Later I was sorry I had performed this marriage," she says now. "Maybe it brought them bad luck." Sophie stopped working at Unifrance and gradually established herself as an independent film producer. There were difficult years, Daniel admits, during which they were briefly separated. Opalka says her niece was disappointed by both her husbands, that sadly she never found the man who would have made her happy.

As a teenager, Sophie had spent two summer holidays with a MacKiernan family in Dublin. "They had 10 children, and at first the children ate in the kitchen and Sophie in the dining room - until she insisted that they all eat together," Bouniol recalls. The MacKiernans took Sophie around Ireland in a caravan. "She always said, `I love this country'," Bouniol adds. In the early 1990s Sophie decided to buy a house in Ireland. "Find myself another country, why?" she wrote in her diary. "I already have one; but another, so it will be mine, so that I will conquer it, so that we will deserve one another." Sophie and her cousin Alexandra, Opalka's daughter, spent weeks sleeping in cold bed and breakfasts while they house-hunted. At one point, she hesitated between two homes. "What is my preference?" she wrote prophetically, describing two contrasting landscapes. "It it difficult to choose between gentleness and violence".

After Sophie's death, her mother found dozens of notebooks and manuscripts among her belongings. "I had underestimated her," she says. "I didn't take her seriously enough. I am trying to make up for it now, by typing all the texts that I find." Among those she lent me were Sophie's diaries from trips to Rome and India, a novella about a peasant spinster in her parent's home village of Combret in Lozere and a fairy tale about a flower and a sea urchin. But the most striking is entitled L'A. de la T. - an abbreviation for "L'Amour de la Terre" or "Love of the Land" - as if Sophie dared not openly declare her affection for the wilds of west Cork. L'A de la T is a beautiful and sometimes funny description of Irish fog and damp, shades of grey and light, sheep and cattle grazing, of a city woman striving to recover her dulled senses of hearing, sight, and smell. "The surroundings are varied and unchanging at the same time," she wrote. "I must find my place, like all living creatures here . . . " The most haunting image is that of a fox stalking the lambs. "This animal that pulls me unwittingly into his clandestinity, forcing me (but you also) to remain silent, to become his companion in hunting . . . " Much later, Sophie finds a dead sheep by the path. "A devoured cadaver with his skeleton and skin spread out a little further away. Raw wool, white and animal, dirty and smelling; in fact the whole scalp of a body . . . an empty envelope mixed with dirt and blood. What remains of the jawbone is still flexed, almost open. You die in the wind, in the sea, on the land here; the rottenness is spread out in daylight, perfectly naturally."

Did Sophie Toscan du Plantier have a premonition of her own death? Two months earlier, when she and Daniel arrived at their country home at Ambax, Sophie stopped a wood-cutter trimming trees in the cemetery where she would be buried. In her book for Sophie, Marguerite Bouniol recalls how Sophie feared reaching the age of 40. She once compared the palm of her hand with those of her aunt and mother and commented that her life-line was only half as long as theirs. There was the way she said "Adieu Maman" - "Farewell" instead of "Au Revoir" the last time they spoke on the telephone, the way she kept saying how she missed her dead grandmothers.

Later, Sophie's mother, father and aunt would meet the Alsatian artist and his wife who had been among the last to see her. On the afternoon of December 22nd, Sophie was walking on Mizen Head when she was suddenly seized with panic and ran to her friends' house. They gave her tea and begged her to spend the night, but she refused - she had chores to do the next day before returning to France for Christmas with Daniel and his children. Among the belongings that i the Garda returned to Sophie's family was a bilingual edition of Yeats they found on Sophie's bed, open to a poem called Death which begins: "Nor dread nor hope attend, A dying animal . . ."

Sophie's writings show that she wanted to be remembered, at least by those who knew her. Her son Pierre-Louis is a tall, gangly maths and science student of 18 now. He did not talk during the evening I spent at Sophie's parents' home. He listened and looked through the pile of his mother's books which Marguerite Bouniol had stacked on the table. When he and I walked to the metro station later, he said he had remained silent out of respect for his mother, that he has in any case blocked out many memories of her. But he does not want to sell her house in Ireland. "It's my house now, and I want it to be open to all my mother's friends and family, as it was when she was living. I go there and people are kind to me. Each time, I return to find her belongings, her smell. I sleep in her bed, and I feel she is with me - I am happy."