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

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The Independent Culture

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.

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