The Fairy, Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy, 93 mins (PG)

This live cartoon starring acrobats is nothing like 'The Artist' – apart from its romantic streak

This week, a French silent comedy – and before you say anything, yes, The Fairy is actually Franco-Belgian and no, it's nothing like The Artist. It's not strictly silent, either – there is some dialogue, and a song or two, but it's silent in spirit, if you know what I mean. In the spirit, that is, of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Jacques Tati (whose films weren't always strictly wordless, either).

Nor should you assume The Fairy is simply following the breakthrough of The Artist – both films premiered in Cannes last year, and directors/performers Abel, Gordon and Romy have been mining their vein of athletic humour over three features now. The only parallel with The Artist is that The Fairy shares its romantic streak, and its absolute, radiant faith in the power of all those visual, physical and sonic procedures that add up to what you could call pure cinema.

The setting is Le Havre, where a lugubrious beanpole named Dom (Abel) is night clerk at a run-down hotel. One evening, just as he's trying hard to settle down to a sandwich – the film has a wonderfully tantalising slow-burn way of setting up its gags – a woman named Fiona (Gordon) walks in. She announces that she's a fairy and offers Dom three wishes. By the time she's saved him from choking on that sandwich, the pair have sparked romantically – but in the way that very small children do when they hit it off in the playground. It's not that Abel and Gordon imitate infants, it's more that they come across – as so many silent-era comics did – like children trying very hard to behave as they think adults are supposed to.

The film's comic logic is childlike, too – at once wildly fanciful and disarmingly commonsensical. The first two things that Dom wishes for are a motor scooter and a lifetime's supply of petrol – cut to Fiona acquiring the keys to a huge silo of petrol in the harbour.

The comedy here is nothing if not physical, and that physicality comes directly from Abel and Gordon, who are acrobats and circus artists at heart. They're an oddly unprepossessing duo – lanky sad sacks who would resemble Tilda Swinton and Andrew Marr if they'd both been dragged through hedges backwards, then put through a mangle. When they stand, they seem painfully unsure what to do with themselves – but once they start to move, they're all sharp angles and flailing limbs, and it's oddly balletic. Sometimes it is ballet. They go for a swim – skinny dipping was never skinnier – and we're treated to an underwater dance sequence, the two of them bobbing about, clad in seaweed swimsuits, in pretend submarine slow motion. The inventively cheap effects add to the fun: the sequence looks like the Christmas window display of a minor department store, with plastic bags doubling as jellyfish.

The film follows its quietly surreal logic. Dom springs Fiona from a mental hospital, using the sort of false-beard-hat-and-raincoat disguise traditionally used by Beano characters to sneak into grown-up films. By now, Fiona is pregnant – magically blossoming to nine months' fullness in a few seconds, with a balloon inflating under her dress. A baby is born, just as unceremoniously, and soon joins its parents in a breakneck chase that's all the more satisfying because the whole thing is so manifestly mocked up in a studio using back projection. Even so, you see Gordon going through her hair-raising acrobatic turns, and part of you – the part that remembers how genuinely death-defying Keaton's generation was – really believes that baby Jimmy is about to go flying off a cliff. You know it can't happen, yet you believe it anyway – which is surely a definition of screen magic, in the old-fashioned but very fundamental sense.

I won't pretend that Abel and Gordon's comedy isn't an acquired taste – although you may well acquire it on the spot. Years ago, I gave up on their first feature Iceberg after some 20 minutes, and now I can't wait to catch up with it and its follow-up Rumba. Part of this comedy's appeal is that it's so off – sometimes knowingly awkward, sometimes wince-inducing. You may not think you'd laugh at a pregnant woman stuffing herself with pills, like sweets, until she flops into a coma. And you may not think there's any joy to be had out of the old Mr Magoo routine of a myopic bar owner (co-director Bruno Romy) crashing into every wall; but actually there is, partly because the gag is executed with an innocent pedantry that somehow makes it feel brand new again.

There aren't any characters as such in this live-action cartoon. Everyone is more like a figure in a Where's Wally? illustration – mental patients, dock workers, a women's rugby team (with resident chanteuse), three homeless Africans who function as a sort of Greek chorus. I won't lie: The Fairy is the sort of film that some will fall in love with, while others grind their teeth in consternation. But you have to hand it to Abel, Gordon and Romy. They're doing something that may not be new, but is definitely individual – it comes from their bodies, their ingenuity and their very particular wit. If you take to it, you'll find the fairy dust positively sparkles – however visibly it's bargain-basement tinsel.

Critic's Choice

Scandi idol and sometimes Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen goes historical in the thinking person's bodice ripper, Danish historical romance A Royal Affair. Elsewhere, catch an eccentric road movie from Russia, with ornithology, ethnography and some oddball sex thrown in – uncategorisable art-house gem Silent Souls.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit