As my meeting with the French film director Claire Denis nears, I find myself unusually nervous. In watching her work again, I have been struck by the extraordinary images she creates: the legionnaires of Beau Travail, lifting their muscled arms to the sky, their long shadows falling on the Djibouti sands; the way the camera draws poetry from Parisian rooftops in the slim, sexual love story Vendredi Soir, just as it will later linger on the two main characters. Then, most viscerally, there's Béatrice Dalle as a cannibal in Trouble Every Day - the scandal of Cannes in 2001 - caked in blood beside a blood-splattered wall. A Jackson Pollock of gore.
And while being shocked and beguiled by these images, I have also been reminded of the extraordinary quiet of Denis's films. This worries me. What if the director is as wordless as her work? What if she communicates through lowered eyelids and muttered asides? What if we are reduced to mime?
So it's a relief to meet Denis and find that she is, as she insists "very open", a small, self-possessed woman of 61, clearly happy to say and do exactly as she pleases. In fact, she's so direct that my first, rather predictable question leads straight to a rather personal answer.
Denis is in Britain to promote her latest film, 35 Shots of Rum, the slow, seductive tale of a train driver, Lionel (Alex Descas), and his student daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop), who live together in a Parisian suburb. Lionel has brought Josephine up alone, and the film revolves around the girl's looming adulthood, when their bond will be broken, and Lionel will sink the alcohol of the film's title. I ask what inspired the film, and Denis launches into her family history. "When my grand-father's wife died," she says, "my mother was two months old, and he decided - he was a very good-looking man - but he decided to save himself for the baby, so he never wanted to have another [woman], because he thought that would be a betrayal." And did they have a close relationship? "Close relationship?" she says. "They were madly in love."
In fact, their lives were so intertwined that on the morning Denis's mother was to marry, rather than stockpiling rum, her father secreted balls of opium about his person, to dull the pain of the day. "My grandfather died when I was 12," says Denis, "but I remember the sorrow of my mother. Even now, she's an old lady, but when she speaks about her father, she looks young. A love like that is undefeated, you know?"
What distinguishes Denis's films is their lack of explanation or prescription; where other directors might be afraid of confusing or losing their audience, Denis holds her nerve, and lets the action and characters slowly unfold. The result is mesmeric. She isn't interested in political messages; she lets the emotions speak for themselves. "What I don't like so much is to give explanations about people's behaviour ... I'm not interested in making conclusions. I would never think about myself, or anyone else - well, this happened, this happened, this happened, so this must be the result. It doesn't work like that with me."
Does she dislike snappy dialogue in other films? No, she says, "when it's good, I really enjoy it. The only thing is, the type of story I like to tell is another sort of dialogue - it's the dialogue between sound and movement, and feelings and emotion. And I think a lot of films now are full of verbiage - probably because of TV. Because TV is mostly close up, it has to be fast. And because it has to be fast, you don't have time to explain completely, by a sequence shot, what's happening between people. So instead of experiencing what's happening, say, when a couple is dancing, dialogue is used to explain. And I think in cinema we still have the choice to take our time."
Denis had a peripatetic childhood in Africa, where her father worked for the French government, living in Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal and Cameroon. There wasn't much access to the cinema, and she decided early on that she wanted to be a nurse, parachuted into disasters, because, "like every kid, I was dreaming about heroic moments". Some nights, though, to lull her to sleep, her mother would relate the films she had seen, in descriptions so detailed that, years afterwards, when the director finally saw Hiroshima Mon Amour, she realised she knew it intimately.
In early adolescence, Denis suffered life-threatening polio and returned to France to recover; by 19 she was married to a photographer. The marriage gave her the freedom to quit her economics course at university, and to head for film school instead. This was the 1970s, and all the cinematic rules were being torn up, but she was still frustrated by the repeated suggestions that, as a woman, she was bound for work in continuity or editing. "I would say, 'I know continuity, I know editing' ... but I wanted to share something with the audience, and I thought that there was nothing better than film if you wanted to share - not experience and dogma - but the fact that all human beings have more or less the same emotions. We don't all look alike - some people think they're tough, some people think they're fragile - but in the end we share a lot." She pauses. "Sometimes I feel like John Wayne."
After her divorce, she became an assistant director on films including Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas, but "even that job was not meant for women. So, at the very beginning, they would say, 'Can you drive?' I said yes. 'Can you do this?' I said yes. 'Can you jump?' I said yes. I would say yes to everything, and sometimes it wasn't true, but it wasn't that I was eager to prove that a woman could be as strong as a man, but I thought, 'If I say no, then it's finished.'"
"I learned to drive trucks. Nobody asked me to, but I thought - I want to be able to do everything in the world. And I was - I am - lazy. I am afraid of spiders. But suddenly I decided: no more. Ten spiders? I would take them in my hand. Fifty mice? No problem! Suddenly, it was a sort of game for me. Not to be masculine. To be indestructible."
Denis met her long-time cinematographer, Agnès Godard, on the set of Paris, Texas; she started working with her long-time writing partner, Jean-Pol Fargeau, on her 1988 directorial debut, Chocolat. Other regular collaborators include the actors Dalle, Descas, and Grégoire Colin, and together they have produced some exquisite, enigmatic films. She says when it came to 35 Shots of Rum, the group involved had a headstart, because: "Agnes, Jean-Pol, Alex - they all know my mother, they all know the story of her and her father."
It is hard to imagine Denis making a Hollywood film - with all the implicit compromises - but she was offered a shot at Boys Don't Cry, the tale of the American woman, Brandon Teena, who lived as a man and was murdered by bigots in Nebraska. "It was two or three years before the film was actually made, and somebody from Fox asked if I would be interested in that story, and I said yes. Then, when they sent the script, the first draft, it started during the trial, so the story was told in flashback, and I didn't agree with that. So I said no - although I regret it now. I would have loved the story, but I thought it was not on the right track for me."
Has Denis ever compromised herself - even slightly - in return for funding? "I've never been asked," she says, "so I've never had to protect myself against the demons. I sometimes wish a millionaire would come and say, 'Do that!' and I would say, 'All right!' Maybe I would be very happy." Maybe she would. But it would be bad news for the rest of us.