On the morning of 23 December 1996, Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found murdered in a lane 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 film-maker, and 13-year-old son, Pierre Louis Baudey-Vignaud. Her death transfixed the media in both Ireland and Paris, partly because it was just so jarring. The murder rate in Ireland was so low that there was only one state pathologist, and it took him 28 hours to reach the scene.
It was close to Christmas. Sarah Lambert, the producer of Netflix’s new documentary, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, struggles to underline how big a deal this was. “More so in Ireland than a lot of other countries, Christmas is such a family time. 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?
In fact, the case has never been solved. Some of this was due to procedure, as described by one Garda forensic, Eugene Gilligan. These were the worst possible crime-scene circumstances: 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 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,” remembers 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.”
Unsolved murders pull the attention towards the vital missing puzzle piece, the under-interpreted 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 to me 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 six miles 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.”
There is an antagonist in this story. The main suspect, Ian Bailey, was a journalist and poet, an extraordinary character, attention-seeking, narcissistic, grandiose, incredibly irritating to almost everyone and, as one neighbour describes, persistently violent to his partner. Bailey 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 appears in the documentary – he seems almost proud of his status as a suspicious figure. 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?”
• Sophie: A Murder in West Cork is on Netflix from 30 June