Wednesday 20 September 2017

The Du Plantier Case review: We didn’t really learn anything new, but the documentary hit a home run in how it retold this familiar story

Ian Bailey Picture: Collins
Ian Bailey Picture: Collins
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Tonight’s documentary didn’t, I don’t think, tell us a whole lot that wasn’t already known about the notorious killing of Frenchwoman Sophie Toscan Du Plantier in 1996. But The Du Plantier Case was nonetheless gripping, moving and – still, 20 years later – shocking.

I was living in Cork City at the time and remember it well. A beautiful woman with a teenage son, from an upper-class Parisian family, married to a filmmaker, enjoying regular breaks in the bucolic Dunmanus area of West Cork…beaten to death a few weeks before Christmas. The fact that something like that could happen, to someone like that, in a place like that – just out the road, really – I remember how genuinely shocking her murder was.

Philip Boucher-Hayes’ film used a clever structure, which recognised that crime stories are always about two sides: the victim and the villain (in this case, alleged villain), and the people who know them, the ripples around them in the stream of life.

So, roughly the first third was devoted to Ian Bailey, then the chief suspect for Sophie’s murder. Then we shifted focus to Sophie’s son Pierre-Louis, 15 when she died, before the programme brought the two strands together in a narrative synthesis.

Undated family handout file photo of Sophie Toscan du Plantier: Family Handout/PA Wire
Undated family handout file photo of Sophie Toscan du Plantier: Family Handout/PA Wire

As I say, we didn’t really learn anything new; everyone knows the basic details of this matter by now. But where The Du Plantier Case hit a home run was in how it retold this familiar story.

For starters, there’s something incredibly powerful about the stark contrast of human horror in the midst of these spectacular, beautiful surroundings. West Cork is the definition of sublime, as in the original meaning of awe-inspiring, but we were reminded again of how an intimate personal story of human beings can be as profound as any scenic vista.

The use of striking B&W shots of those interviewed was also very effective, the jump between monochrome and colour reminiscent at times of scenes from Memento (also, as it happens, about murder and memories).

The scenes with Pierre-Louis were especially affecting, for obvious reasons. He says his childhood essentially ended that day. He now lives in Paris with his wife and two children, and regularly returns to West Cork. He loves the place, Pierre-Louis said, just like his mother did.

Meanwhile the enigmatic, indecipherable Mr Bailey remains a fascinating figure, after all these years. With his ravaged good looks and cut-glass voice, that haunted air he gives off, he almost seems like a character from central casting: Suspicious English Toff in Small-Town Murder-Mystery.

Pierre-Louis described him as “strange” and it’s hard to disagree. But that, of course, doesn’t mean he did it. There are apparent strikes against him – a history of domestic assault, scratches on his hands and face, and most damningly, no alibi for the night of the murder – but as Bailey rightly insists, there’s no real proof of guilt.

Where will this sad saga end? Just today, our courts decided not to grant an extradition request from French authorities. Ian Bailey may yet be tried, over there, in absentia.

The film ended with poignant home video footage of Sophie, after we heard Pierre-Louis say how he wouldn’t find peace until her killer is brought to justice. Sadly, you feel that even a conviction can never make up for the most heartrending trauma possible: that of a child losing his mother in violent circumstances.

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