Dir: Roy Andersson. Sweden-Denmark-Norway-Germany-France. 2000. 100 mins.

Prod cos: Roy Andersson Filmproduktion AB in co-production with Sveriges Television AB, SVT Drama, Danmarks Radio, Norsk Rikskringkasting, Arte France Cinema, Societe Parisienne de Production, Essential Filmproduktion GmbH, Easy Film A/S, ZDF in collaboration with ARTE, in association with Canal Plus. Int'l Sales: The Coproduction Office (+30 3277 7879). Exec prod: Philippe Bober. Prod: Lisa Alwert. Scr: Andersson. DoP: Istvan Borbas, Jesper Klevenas. Ed: Andersson. Music: Benny Andersson. Main cast: Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson, Tommy Johansson, Joran Mueller, Hanna Eriksson, Peter Roth.

Of the several directors returning to Cannes after a long absence from feature film-making, Andersson takes the biscuit: this is his first movie in 25 years (and only the third of his entire career). It's a spectacularly strange piece that, after a dazzling opening half hour which reveals Andersson as the most original director to hit town for many a day, slowly collapses under its own strenuous eccentricity and lack of cumulative dramatic impact. A vigorous festival career awaits, but aggressive critical support will be needed to steer it beyond that.

At the end of the millennium (a setting which makes the film feel as if it has already slightly missed its moment), an unnamed Northern town is gripped by a sense of apocalypse. Businesses collapse overnight, a magician makes a mistake and literally saws a man in half, bizarre religious rituals are held and the place is jammed by traffic as the entire population heads lemming-like out of the city.

These incidents, the relationship between which remains tenuous, are portrayed in a series of set pieces shot with an entirely static camera (the film contains one single camera movement, a reverse tracking shot, at around the midway mark) in sparse, faintly surreal trompe l'oeil sets. Each scene is an exquisite little comic vignette, impeccably framed and lit, with precisely timed gags detonating constantly in the background. The narcotic mood is heightened by the constant but barely audible muzak.

If this bizarre brilliance had been sustained and developed, the film would be nothing short of a masterpiece, but the momentum gradually starts to flag as no uniting theme emerges. Dramatically, it feels like a string of increasingly fragmented and facetious sequences, as though Andersson's many years as a distinguished maker of commercials had left him unable to elaborate and deepen an idea over a longer distance.