Most countries can't boast more than a handful of female film-makers able to make a living, let alone a reputation; cinema behind the camera has always been a shamefully male preserve. France is at least a little different. Amusingly, not only are Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis two of the best-known French directors working today, they are also Parisian next-door neighbours; as if they were participating in a Gallic object lesson for the rest of us.
But what a strange pair: the pugnacious über-feminist Breillat, whose films Romance and A ma soeur combine sexual politics with art house porn, and the gentle, cosmopolitan Denis, whose Beau travail has to be one of the most beautiful films about men ever made.
I had heard that the pair actually shared an apartment, but when I put this to Denis she almost chokes on her cigarette. "No, we don't share an apartment. That would be a nightmare for me," she exclaims. "We are very much next door. She asked me to move there. I was terrified. That's the first time I have had a neighbour who I know."
And why did Breillat want Denis for a neighbour? "Oh, we hate each other," she exclaims, her frail cigarettes and coffee voice giving way to a chuckle. "This space went empty and Catherine said she would prefer me to anybody else. But she knows I don't socialise very much."
One wonders whether Denis's new apartment coincided with Trouble Every Day, her lurid vampire bloodfest which followed - and threatened to take the gloss off - Beau travail; so portentous and emotionally unengaging that one could imagine the agent provocateur prompting from over the clothes line.
No matter, for Denis' latest film sees her closer to form. Vendredi soir opens with a woman, about to move in with her boyfriend, caught in an enormous traffic jam. A man, a stranger, gets in her car, wanting a lift. They barely speak. But within hours they have booked into a hotel and slept together.
When Denis announced that she intended to adapt the novel by Emmanuele Bernheim, "People told me it would never be a film. They said, you're crazy, it only takes place in a woman's head, nothing happens - how can you make a film where nothing happens?" She laughs. "I told them that this woman is meeting a man. How can you say it's nothing? It's big. It's like the essence of any love story - the first meeting."
The dissenting voices may have been wary of the story's lack of psychological explanation or melodrama. But enigma is one of the defining characteristics of Denis' work, along with a poetic approach to storytelling.
Thus the prolonged traffic jam that brings the lovers together is not the usual bland array of fraying tempers, but a symphonic sequence that suggests something beautiful about being stuck in a gridlock.
"People in Paris, if they are stuck in a traffic jam after work, especially if there is a strike, they don't rebel, they are too tired," she says. "It's like a slow river with too much rain. People accept it, like a kind of fate. I wanted the woman to think like that, to just accept it. And her mind turns it into a kind of ballet. That's why I really wanted a little piece of Benjamin Britten, at the moment before they meet."
Denis imagined that Vendredi soir would be a departure for her. "Since Emmanuele is so different from me, I thought I was making a jump into another galaxy. Emmanuele is optimistic, I'm pessimistic; she's strong, I feel weak; she's dark, I'm blonde. So I thought, 'Ha, at last a little sun in my life!' But of course, when the film was finished I could see the truth. It's our fate not to be able to change completely; to be who we are."
It's true that while in outline films such as Beau travail (the foreign legion camped in north-east Africa,) Trouble Every Day (cannibalistic vampires turn on themselves) and Vendredi soir could not seem more different, they actually share a bruised romantic sensibility. These films are about love denied, abused, betrayed or, in the case of Vendredi soir, embraced - but only for a night.
At 55 Denis has a jaunty, youthful appearance, wearing a funky little tracksuit and trainers; but at the same time, the voice - full of character, always seeming on the verge of clapping out - resonates with another story: of experience, of two failed marriages, of a woman who, when I ask how she regards herself in the context of the French film industry, says, "I feel part of nothing, I feel very lonely, not only in cinema, but in my own life also. I think it's part of my neurotic way. I like to be alone."
She rejects the notion that this may be anything to do with her background. An only child, from the age of two to 12 she experienced an itinerant childhood in Africa - her father's job with the French civil service taking the family to Cameroon, Somalia, Senegal. It was only when she nearly died from polio that she was returned to France. Her first film, Chocolat, which she made in 1988, is a piquant reflection on this period in her life and what she describes as "the simultaneous fascination and repulsion white people feel for black Africa."
Having studied at film school in Paris, she gained experience as an assistant director, notably for Wim Wenders, whose existential bent can be seen to inform Denis' own films. In his prime Wenders was the master of the road movie - the quintessential existentialist genre; in its snail-like way, Vendredi soir is a road movie too.
"When we were doing location scouting for [Wenders'] Paris, Texas, we drove through Texas for three months," Denis reflects. "I learned a lot about myself on that trip, and also a lot about making films, including something which is secret in a way, that you don't share with a director often.
"During all this driving and driving, in circles sometimes, you are pretending that you are looking for a location, but in fact you're looking for the film. You may have the script, it may be well-written, articulate, but the film is not there yet. I think Wim was looking for his film. I am the same. I may not drive in circles, but I know that the film is somewhere, out there, and you have to find it."
'Vendredi soir' (15) opens on FridayReuse content