I watched all four films in Hanoun's tetralogy Les Saisons yesterday, and was extremely impressed. This is certainly a major work of French cinema.
Hanoun's career runs directly parallel to the Nouvelle Vague, but he's not really a part of it, and his films were by and large more austere and experimental than any by the NV directors, but you can see some intriguing cross-fertilisation in these four films, particularly with regard to Godard's later career. With L'ete, Hanoun was effectively making 'late period Godard' films as early as 1968.
There's a strong auteurial signature to all four films, particularly in terms of playfully disjunctive editing, extensive use of quotation and deliberately problematic image-to-soundtrack relationships, but each of these films has its own distinct identity. I'll give brief impressions of them in seasonal order (not the same as release order).
Le Printemps - Possibly the most straightforward example of Hanoun's dialectical style among the four films. Black-and-white shots of Michael Lonsdale fleeing something across the countryside are intercut with colour footage of the everyday activities of a young girl who lives with her grandmother. There's an implied relationship between the two strands of the film that never completely resolves at a narrative level, though there's an interesting (and, for me, satisfying) symbolic resolution of the two at the end of the film. The visual demarcation of the two strands (black and white vs. colour) is almost immediately complicated by Hanoun's typically devious editing style, in which traditional film syntax suggests that inserted colour footage represents what Lonsdale can see, or other colour inserts (tracking dogs, helicopter shots) are implicitly associated with Lonsdale's narrative. However, these are films that consistently frustrate traditional film syntax in original and provocative ways, so every cut is haunted by ambiguity. The young girl's experience takes in visions that seem to be daydreams or projections (sometimes in black and white), so we're also invited to consider the entire other half of the film as being of a similar order. The text of the film largely consists of recitations and quotations (a nonsense song, schoolyard rhymes, poems read aloud, fairy tales recalled): there's almost no regular dialogue. It's a film that demands active engagement and is very rewarding on those terms. The stripped-down chase narrative is viscerally involving, and the child's story is beautifully shot and nicely observed, and throughout the film you're trying to piece the two together and figure out how any additional material might relate to one or other or both strands.
L'Ete - Possibly the best film I've seen about May'68, and it was made right on top of those events. A woman escapes from a fraught Paris to a friend's house in Normandy, and the whole film basically inhabits her consciousness as she potters around the estate and reflects on her experiences. This is a real anticipation of 90s and 00s Godard, with its bucolic beauty, copious visual and literary quotations, interrogation of photographs and extremely complex soundtrack. It's a film where you can't take for granted the connection between any two contiguous shots, or between image and soundtrack, so again, it's a film that will keep you continually on your toes if you engage with it. It's also formally and thematically playful and briskly paced.
L'Automne - The most stylistically austere of the four films, and the one I liked the least, though it's still a fascinating object. The sole focus is on a director (Lonsdale, possibly playing the same character as he did in the earlier L'Hiver) editing a film with his new assistant (Tamia). The film is quite literally a Steenbeck's eye view of the editing process. So most of the sequences involve the actors staring into the lens / screen while they discuss the film or watch playback (which we can't see but can hear). In places it's almost a proto-Shirin, watching close-ups of faces watching a film. When the characters have to leave the editing table (to answer the telephone, say) the screen goes black, but we can hear them talking. After the halfway mark, things start to get a little screwy (we get brief flashes of the characters naked, for example, or Tamia starts to trace their own outlines on the camera lens / Steenbeck screen / movie screen, turning the movie screen into a window), and eventually the rigorous schema breaks down completely and we seem to end up in the film that they are making (we even, eventually, get a privileged glimpse of ourselves / the Steenbeck). As you'd expect there's a fair bit of talk about the nature of cinema. My initial impression is that the film was either not diverse enough or too diverse: the minimalism of the main part of the film became a bit of a chore, but the way it opened up late in the piece wasn't as satisfying or revelatory as it felt like it should have been.
L'Hiver - A magnificent accomplishment that synthesizes most of what Hanoun is boldly attempting in these films while being consistently engaging and inventive at the basic level of filmmaking. Lonsdale is a director making a documentary about Bruges, and we follow him on location scouting and shooting with his cameraman (cue lots of drop-dead gorgeous sequences of characters navigating the city's waterways). He falls in love with the place and wants to shoot a feature there instead. Meanwhile, his producer arrives and attempts to seduce him away to a cliched commercial feature, and his wife arrives, dissatisfied and hoping for something to seduce her away, which she kind of finds in the person of a painter who starts following her around. There's a solid, conventional relationship drama at the heart of this film, but it's decked out in audacious formal invention and copious supplementary material. There's a wealth of documentary footage of the city's religious art and architecture (implicitly from the short the filmmakers are working on), extensive quotations from literary texts (including a couple that the director is thinking of adapting), loads of jarring and mysterious edits (a marital argument could be interrupted by a split-second glimpse of the Bruges documentary, for example), vertiginously impossible - even sarcastic - shot-reverse shot constructions that call into question every other edit, and a complicated, layered and radically disjunctive soundtrack that can slip in and out of sync with the image (as when a shot of a character is overlaid with their dialogue, suggesting an internal monologue, an impression which is immediately undercut when they begin saying the words 'for real' - even while the alternative dialogue take continues on the soundtrack). There are small stylistic inventions that I find delightful, even though they're just passing ornaments, as when characters vanish from a scene via jumpcut a moment before the shot actually ends. The film's final shot occurs three times in a row, in increasingly self-reflexive and playful variations.
L'Hiver was the stand-out film of the bunch, but they're all worthwhile and add up to a major work by a major filmmaker. The restorations are excellent. There's no supplementary material on the discs but the hefty book is well up to Re:Voir's lofty standard. Here's hoping that there's more Hanoun in their pipeline.