In the opening scene of Joanna Hogg's first film, Unrelated, a woman of 40 or so – played by Kathryn Worth – arrives, at night and apparently from nowhere, at a Tuscan villa where friends and friends of friends are staying. She has come alone and pulled her own suitcase up a dark road (along with her troubles), and it doesn't feel as if she is entirely welcome. The house party, two fairly dysfunctional moneyed English families, already has its habits and in-jokes established. She might have arrived late but, for better and worse, she determines to join in anyway.
In some ways that memorable introductory scene, its awkwardness perfectly pitched, seemed to dramatise Hogg's own tardy arrival to her current career. Like Worth's character it was as if she had turned up out of the blue to crash the settled ironies of British film-making, and no one – critics or audiences – knew quite what to make of her. Hogg released Unrelated, which she had written and directed when she was 47, after spending a good part of the previous two decades as a jobbing director on television soaps – London's Burning, Casualty, EastEnders; suddenly here she was, pitching up with her baggage among the prize-winning elite of European cinema.
Critics fumbled for reference points to describe Unrelated, part subtle comedy of manners, part quietly alienated psychodrama, which dwelled on the "inappropriate" lust of Worth's character for the son of one of the holidaying families (Tom Hiddleston in a flirtatious cinema debut). Eric Rohmer was mentioned, Michael Haneke, too, but Hogg seemed that rare fully-formed thing, a very English auteur.
She quickly repeated that performance with the startlingly good Archipelago, another coolly observed, sometimes darkly hilarious, tale of grating middle-class family tension and disconnection – less kitchen-sink than bespoke butler-sink drama – also starring Hiddleston, this time on a claustrophobic get-together at Tresco in the Scilly Isles. Her third film, Exhibition, brings Hogg closer to her London home, while developing her focus on the unsettling spaces between supposed intimates that has quickly come to seem her cinematic trademark.
Her camera invades the often silent relationship of a pair of artists – played by the former Slits guitarist and punk icon Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick, the conceptualist one-time YBA – as they try to remember how to live and love together in a modernist glass house, the home they are, for reasons unexplained, about to leave.
The films feel deeply personal to Hogg – as well as perfectly crafted – and meeting her for lunch in Soho I find myself stumbling to discover where exactly they have come from. In person Hogg is wary of the need to explain her work, and charmingly conscious, second by second, of every one of the difficulties of doing so. Trying to make her talk about herself feels a bit like a serial act of trespass.
We chat first about the ongoing burst of creative energy in which she is working. "It's just increasingly realising that there can be some kind of vehicle or container for ideas of mine I have always had," she says. "The space is suddenly there for me, and the audience is there, albeit perhaps quite a small one and a localised one."
Somewhat reluctantly – "I really like to look forward always not back" – she runs me briskly along the unlit road that brought her to that audience. Childhood near Sevenoaks in Kent, father a city insurance broker, stay-at-home mother; boarding school (she won't tell me the name, "it doesn't exist any more"); dreams of London, and then Soho as a photographer's assistant; then the National Film School; encouragement from Derek Jarman (who she met by chance in Patisserie Valerie); a first foray into film-making with the then unknown Tilda Swinton ("I was barely 21 and didn't have the wherewithal to pull it off"); and then the long hiatus in TV.
"I think I was trying to prove something after film school, that I could direct actors, get things done," she says. "Maybe it was a detour I shouldn't have embarked on but I didn't feel the work I was doing at film school was understood. I left behind these personal ideas that I had begun to develop."
In television she learned to work fast, in the emotional shorthand of soaps. "I would be competitive with the – mostly male – directors who were shooting other parts of a series, how many minutes, for example, I could shoot in a day. Quite juvenile, but useful in retrospect. Now if I am told by a producer I have 20 minutes to shoot a scene, I can pull that off."
That takes her from 1988 to 2003. "Going back to what you originally asked," she says: "'Was there an event that changed things for me?' In 2003 my father died very suddenly. I was 43."
We are more familiar with male mid-life crises, I say, than female ones. Was that how she would describe what followed? "That was my first," she suggests, laughing a bit, "and they have carried on since then, on and off. My father died very suddenly and it was like I realised finally that my life would not turn out the way I had always thought it would. I went into quite a dark place in order for something to happen."
Was that reckoning a desire for greater recognition?
"It wasn't, 'Oh, I haven't become famous,'" she says. "It was more, 'I haven't expressed those feelings I feel very intensely.'"
What kind of feelings?
She winces. "To do with expressing my way of seeing the world. That was what was important to me. I was always the one as a child on the outside of things a bit, very shy when I was younger, a feeling of loneliness on some level. I wasn't a good communicator, but I believed in some ways I could communicate."
Hogg had grown up a lover of Hollywood musicals and European fairytales, Gene Kelly and the Brothers Grimm. She feels sometimes she is "reigniting" that love now. "With each film I feel I am getting a bit further into dreamlike domains."
There are, I suggest, a few moments in Exhibition when the viewer is not sure whether things have happened in the life of Viv Albertine's character or in her mind. Albertine plays a fiftysomething performance artist, and the film explores her exploring her own desire. Some of her recollections of sex in particular are hard to place.
"I was interested in creating a situation where you weren't quite sure what was real and what not," Hogg says. "For the first time with Exhibition I also incorporated some of my dreams, though I won't say which specific scenes…"
We are often invited to forget how dreamlike films are, I say.
"Yes, but also, in turn, how dreamlike life is," she says.
Hogg's film dreams are rooted in very particular places. Tuscany and the Scilly Isles, and now this glass and steel house in west London, which is at least as crucial to the film as its inhabitants. "I met the house in the early 90s," Hogg says, "because I knew the architect, James Melvin, and his wife Elsa. He was a great modernist who designed, for example, the BA terminal at JFK airport, much of Sheffield University. He died a couple of years ago. The house we filmed in was one of the few private dwellings he designed. I am reluctant to give you the postcode. West."
She was fascinated by the exposure, the openness of living in a glass house like that: its inside-out nature, the way it soaks up sounds from the street, its inbuilt theatricality. "You might," she says, "be looking out of a window and see a reflection of a table floating in the garden."
She saw the story as a choreographed dance around the house. It was only a couple of days before the shoot that she found Gillick, just while looking at stuff about him on the internet; he seemed the right kind of presence. She had known Albertine since 1984, and she was a friend. Neither had acted before.
Was it a high wire act for them?
"They had no chance for trepidation. They threw themselves into the house and inhabited it. I don't like to call the way we worked improvisation. I have a very clear plan on paper, which I don't show them."
Hogg herself has long lived with an artist, Nick Turvey, a former architect and film-maker who now makes widely commissioned sculptures and installations "He is interested in working in different media," she says of Turvey's work, which along with stone carving has recently included pieces fashioned from talcum powder and jelly. "A lot of art is about repetition – he is always discovering new territory. I feel a bit like that too." In the note to a recent exhibition Turvey observed: "The feeling grows that, in some sense, the physical body is also a trap, a prison, in which we dream about the inevitable, impossible escape. We are both gaoler and prisoner, a blackly comic state of affairs." Two sentences that might equally act as a footnote to Hogg's work.
As in her first film, it is tempting to identify the director quite strongly with the middle-aged female character, given the intimacy the camera seems to have with her state of mind, but I'm imagining that is a hopelessly naive way of looking at it?
"I understand that desire," Hogg says. "People want to know how true it is. There are obviously things I have expressed that are very personal. I am pouring a lot of myself into it as it happens but I don't look at it as autobiographical. It is like a skin I have to shed in order to keep going."
One of the absences in the life of Albertine's character is children. That absence also became the explicit reason for the slightly unhinged state of mind of Worth's character in the first film. Hogg and Turvey have not had children. She once said that if she had done she would not have made the films. How flippant a comment was that?
"It was not flippant at all," she says, understandably reluctant again to make too easy a correlation. "I would be unlikely to be making the films I have been making if I had had children. I see my films as a way of creating something. Which is to say I don't think they are entirely dissimilar. At least, I know that I would be caught up and worried about my children constantly in something like the same way. That doesn't mean I am happy not to have had children. The feelings of sadness about not having children never go away. Well, they come and go. I am already anticipating what life will be like not having grandchildren. And imagining the pleasure that I will not have then."
Like children, I'm guessing too that the films have been the best antidote to that mid-life melancholia she describes?
"To the extent that I have become quite good, I think, at turning something quite dark into something else, then perhaps," she says.
One thing she is sure of: the more films she makes, the more she wants to make. "The great thing about doing this is there is always some unfinished business," she says. She is plagued by the thought "how many years have I got left as a director?" Having finally arrived somewhere near where she wants to be, she has no intention of moving on. "I really hope it's early days yet," she says.