ORn the morning of December 23, 1996, Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found murdered in an alley near Schull, West Cork. She was 39 years old and a regular visitor to Ireland from Paris, where she lived with her husband, a celebrated filmmaker, and their 13-year-old son, Pierre Louis Baudey-Vignaud. His death paralyzed the media in both Ireland and Paris, in part because it was so jarring. The murder rate in Ireland was so low that there was only one state pathologist, and it took him 28 hours to get to the scene.
It was close to Christmas. Sarah Lambert, producer of the new Netflix documentary Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, goes out of her way to underscore how important this was. “More in Ireland than in many other countries, Christmas is a family time. I know many married couples who will separate and return to their parents. People were in awe that she, a mother, was there alone at the end of December. “The place was so remote, the community so close-knit, that such violence seemed incongruous. It was hoped that there would be a quick resolution. In a place where no you could buy a new cardigan without everyone knowing, how could anyone get away with it?
In fact, the case has never been solved. Some of this was due to procedure, as described by a Garda coroner, Eugene Gilligan. These were the worst possible circumstances at the crime scene: outdoors, in the middle of the road, when it takes 12 hours to get there and there is a community culture of staying quiet. So the mystery has held on for 25 years. But buried under speculation, a deeper question has not been disturbed: who was Sophie Toscan du Plantier before she was a victim? Who was she when she was a human being?
“People were fascinated,” remembers Lambert, who grew up in Ireland and was a child when the murder occurred. “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, associate producer of the documentary. Herself was a filmmaker and was talking to friends before she was killed about starting a project on body fluids: breast milk, semen, blood. Gazeau, when he got involved in the film, had “only three requests. My wish was to give Sophie a real place in history, to have a balanced treatment between the main suspect and the victim. The second request was not to show Sophie’s body. I did not want to get involved in a voyeuristic project. The third was to treat history with dignity and humanity, talk about emotions instead of evidence. “
The unsolved murders draw attention to the vital missing piece of the puzzle, the underinterpreted clue. But it’s hard to play armchair detective and empathize at the same time. The fascinating thing about this documentary is that it manages to get both answers in turns.
The executive producer is Simon Chinn, the double Oscar-winning documentary producer behind Man on Wire and My Scientology Movie (shared by this project’s director, John Dower). Speaking to me from London, he describes the process of humanization of history. “It is such a visual story. The landscape becomes a character, it seems a cliché, but it really is. “That sheds light on Sophie’s idiosyncrasy:” The view from her window in Toormore [an outcrop six miles west of Schull] it’s incredibly strong, it’s so isolated. You would have to be someone who was part of that landscape to love him there. “
What we see of his family is essential to rebuild Toscan du Plantier as a character; they are, in Tolstoy’s sense, just another happy, close-knit family. “She was so much more than a cousin,” says Gazeau. “She was one of my best friends. I saw her two or three times a week. I slept at her house because she, her son, and I were like a threesome. “The devastation her son describes of losing her in her teens is so hard to hear. But all this shows is that Tolstoy is an idiot, since he doesn’t they have nothing ordinary.
As the documentary progresses, it becomes a subtle but inquisitive inquiry into pain, the total focus of which is the particularity of the lost person. The victim becomes three-dimensional again, his character restored. Yet inevitably, Sophie’s loved ones cannot rest until they know who murdered her. “Justice is abstract when it’s not your loss,” says Gazeau, “but for a family, it’s something in your blood. We have to go and demand justice until the end. We have no choice. “
There is an antagonist in this story. The prime suspect, Ian Bailey, was a journalist and poet, an extraordinary character, flashy, narcissistic, grandiose, incredibly irritating to almost everyone, and, as one neighbor describes, persistently violent towards his partner. Bailey was a person of interest to the Garda from the beginning. But the director of the Public Ministry was never satisfied that there was enough evidence to bring him to trial. Bailey appears in the documentary; he seems almost proud of his status as a suspicious figure. He also agreed to be interviewed on a podcast about the murder three years ago, and it comes straight out of Agatha Christie, desperate to get attention for a crime he insists he did not commit.
French justice has a different threshold of evidence – one journalist describes its requirements as more like a “bouquet of evidence” – and neither the family nor the French judicial system could ever understand why Bailey was not tried in Ireland. In 2007, Sophie’s uncle created the Association for the Truth About the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the success of which is detailed in the third episode. But as Chinn puts it: “We are 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 will never really know what happened. “Freed from the” what? “, This true crime asks” who? “