On the morning of December 23, 1996, Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found murdered in an alley near Schull, in West Cork. She was 39 and regularly visited Ireland from Paris, where she lived with her husband, a famous filmmaker, and her 13-year-old son, Pierre Louis Baudey-Vignaud. Her death stabbed the media in Ireland and Paris, in part because it was so shocking. 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 near Christmas. Sarah Lambert, the producer of Netflix’s new documentary Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, struggles to stress how big a deal this was. “More in Ireland than in many other countries, Christmas is a family moment. I know a lot of married couples who are going to separate and go back to their parents. People were amazed that she, a mother, was here all alone so late in December. The place was so remote, the community so tight-knit, that such violence seemed incongruous. It was expected that there would be an early resolution. In a place where you couldn’t buy a new cardigan without everyone knowing it, how could you get away with murder?
In fact, the case was never resolved. Part of this was due to the procedure, as described by Garda medical examiner Eugene Gilligan. These were the worst possible circumstances at crime scenes: outdoors, in the middle of the road, when it takes 12 hours to get there and there is a community culture of staying silent. The mystery has therefore lasted for 25 years. But buried under speculation, a deeper question remained unanswered: who was Sophie Toscan du Plantier before being a victim? Who was she when she was a human?
“People were fascinated,” recalls Lambert, who grew up in Ireland and was a child when the murder took place. “Partly because Sophie was really beautiful. But the beautiful women in the stories should always be very straightforward. Toscan du Plantier was a complicated person – Gothic in his sensibility, dark and witty in his interests, as described by his cousin Frédéric Gazeau, associate producer of the documentary. She was a director herself and talked to friends before she was killed about launching 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 didn’t want to be involved in a voyeurism project. The third was to treat history with dignity and humanity – to talk about emotions rather than evidence. “
The unsolved murders draw attention to the vital missing piece of the puzzle, the under-interpreted clue. But it’s hard to play armchair sleuth and empathize at the same time. What’s fascinating about this documentary is that it manages to elicit both responses in turn.
The executive producer is Simon Chinn, the two-time Oscar-winning documentary producer behind Man on Wire and My Scientology Movie (who shares project director John Dower). Speaking to me from London, he describes the process of humanizing history. “It’s such a visual story. The landscape becomes a character – it looks like a cliché, but it really is. “This throws its own light on Sophie’s idiosyncrasy:” The view from her window in Toormore [an outcrop six miles west of Schull] is incredibly austere, it’s so isolated. You would have to be someone who was part of that landscape to love it there.
What we see of his family is fundamental to rebuilding Toscan du Plantier as a character; they are, in Tolstoy’s sense, just another happy, very close family. “She was 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 place because she, her son and I were like a threesome. The devastation her son describes losing her in her teenage years is so hard to hear. But all this shows that Tolstoy is an idiot, because they are nothing ordinary.
As the documentary progresses, it becomes a subtle yet in-depth investigation of grief, the focus of which is entirely on the particularity of the lost person. The victim becomes three-dimensional again, his character restored. Yet, inevitably, those close to Sophie cannot rest until they know who murdered her. “Justice is abstract when it’s not your downfall,” says Gazeau, “but for a family, it’s something in your blood. We must go and claim 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, attention-seeking, narcissistic, grandiose, incredibly irritating to almost everyone and, as one neighbor describes it, constantly abusive towards his partner. Bailey was a person of interest to the Garda from the start. But the director of the prosecution was never convinced that there was enough evidence to bring him to justice. Bailey appears in the documentary – he almost seems proud of his status as a suspicious character. He also agreed to be interviewed on a murder podcast three years ago, and straight out of Agatha Christie, desperate to draw attention to a crime he insists he does not. did not commit.
French justice has a different threshold of proof – a journalist describes their demands as more like a “bunch of evidence” – and neither the family nor the French justice system have ever been able to 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, whose success is detailed in the third episode. But as Chinn says, “We are not here to do the work 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 “what?” “, This real crime rather asks” who?