One thing about being a minority in your particular field of endeavour: those of you who struggle through to real prominence tend to stand out.

Not just for being rare birds, but for possessing the talent and sheer stubbornness required to disregard the status quo.

The quota of significant female film directors has throughout the history of cinema been stupidly and weirdly low; but the ones who have distinguished themselves have arguably done so with particular flair. Whatever you think of the work of Shirley Clarke or Lynne Ramsay, Catherine Breillat or Claire Denis or Sofia Coppola, they're certainly not workaday directors: their films bear powerful personality hallmarks that force them into the establishment's field of vision. (Actually, Coppola probably didn't have that much trouble getting glimpsed by the movie establishment, since most of it probably came over for cocktails round the family swimming pool, but you get the idea.)

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The Belgian-born filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who will be honoured as a guest and retrospective subject at the upcoming French Film Festival, is another such iconoclast. Not that she would thank me much for bundling her into a "girl-ghetto". Though frequently claimed as a "feminist" filmmaker, and certainly concerned in her work with questions of gender and sexuality, Akerman shrinks from the label. As she puts it, "I'm not making women's films, I'm making Chantal Akerman's films."

Her challenge in making her early films – experimental pieces inspired by the groundbreaking work of Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and Michael Snow – was artistic and financial rather than political. So outside the mainstream was she, and working with such tiny, scraped-together budgets, that she didn't find herself "confronted by the system". The system hardly figured – and still doesn't – to a filmmaker noted and celebrated almost as much for her provocative public persona as for the content of her work. Attendees of the French Film Festival are unlikely to get smooth people-pleasing Q&A chat from Akerman; she tends to be both honest and volatile, prone to irreverent anecdotes, brutally frank assessments of her own work and spiky audience exchanges.

A turbulent past helped to form this dynamic and difficult creator. Akerman was born in Brussels in 1950, to an observant Jewish family of modest means. Her mother was a survivor of Auschwitz, losing most of her family there. Akerman has spoken of how the psychological legacy of near-starvation in the camp drove her mother to imagine that the young Chantal was anorexic and push her into treatment, when, by Akerman's reckoning, she was "just a normal-looking child".

Into her daughter, Akerman's mother poured not only her Holocaust trauma but also her frustrated ambitions: having lost out on a career herself by dint of being "too broken" by the war, she wished her daughter's creative potential to reach full flight. Inspired by seeing Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot Le Fou as a teenager, Akerman tried film school in Belgium, but it didn't take; she wanted to get working, so she quit and made Saute Ma Ville, a 13-minute black-and-white study of a young woman alone. Akerman, just 18, played the lead herself.

The same year she took herself to New York City, the heart of the burgeoning American avant-garde. Through the early work she made there can be traced the development of her enduring interest in "cinematic time" – her work favours long takes and odd, awkward framings that emphasise the isolation and disconnection frequently experienced by her characters. Her work is austere and ambiguous – she once characterised her main concerns as "language, documentary, fiction, Jews and the Second Commandment" – but is not without sensual pleasure or emotional directness.

Probably the best-known title, and the earliest one playing in the French Film Festival season – Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – is the story of a Brussels housewife, played by Delphine Seyrig, who supports her household via part-time prostitution. Long, slow and obsessively focused on the minor details of its protagonist's lonely life, this is no popcorn-spiller, but it is a key title in the history of experimental cinema. Adjust your expectations of cinematic time and action, and Akerman gradually opens for you a level of understanding of her character's world and psyche that is all the more profound for being hard-won.

The French Film Festival programme also contains a lot of Akerman's lighter work. Night And Day, from 1991, is a playful triangular romance, and 2004's Tomorrow We Move a positively slapstick slice of odd-couple comedy. Fans of musical comedy are directed towards the Jacques Demy-inspired Golden Eighties, and dance buffs won't want to miss the elegant study On Tour With Pina Bausch. The programme is brought bang up to date by Akerman's brand new film, Almayer's Folly. Her first fiction piece in seven years, this ambitious adaptation of Joseph Conrad's first novel has found breathless acclaim on the 2012 film festival circuit.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for one whose mother couldn't see her clearly enough to grasp that she wasn't starving and who grew up to be a permanent exile, Akerman repeatedly returns to themes of disconnection and failed intimacy, physical displacement and unsatisfiable needs. But she's also an artistic polymath whose relentless challenges to herself have produced some of cinema's most intriguing and memorable statements. The critic J Hoberman described Almayer's Folly as "a movie made with the excitement and eccentricity of genius". Genius is a tough thing to pin down. Don't miss the chance to be in its presence.

The French Film Festival runs from November 8-December 2 in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Aberdeen and Kirkcaldy. For more details of the programme, log on to Chantal Akerman will attend screenings of Almayer's Folly at Filmhouse, Edinburgh on November 16, 5.45pm, and Glasgow Film Theatre on November 18, 5pm