The silent movie triumphed in seven of its 11 nominated categories, including Best Film, Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius and Best Actor for Jean Dujardin, outshining homegrown favourite Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at the London ceremony.
The espionage thriller, starring Gary Oldman and John Hurt, was named the night's Outstanding British Film and its co-writers Peter Straughan and his late wife, Bridget O'Connor, won the Best Adapted Screenplay prize.
Hurt later received a standing ovation as he accepted the Outstanding Contribution to Cinema Award. He told the crowd that his wife had advised him to say nothing more than, 'Thank you,' and quipped: "One of the difficult things about being given an award that you know you are going to get is that you are expected to have had the time to write a speech!"
Meryl Streep lost her shoe on her way to pick up her Best Actress prize, for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and giggled as Colin Firth helped to put it back on her foot.
She told the audience, "That couldn't have gone worse!" before referring to her British roots, revealing, "Half of me is Streep and the other half of me is Wilkinson from Lincolnshire."
Christopher Plummer received his first taste of BAFTA gold at 82 years old as he was named Best Supporting Actor for Beginners, while the Best Supporting Actress prize went to another Oscars favourite, Octavia Spencer for The Help.
The evening also featured a tribute to Whitney Houston from presenter Cuba Gooding, Jr., who said, "Whitney, I will always love you" before reading out the Special Visual Effects nominations. Houston died in Los Angeles on Saturday (11Feb12).
It was also a big night for filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who was hailed by BAFTA as "a true inspiration to all young directors the world over". His movie Hugo also grabbed Best Production Design and Best Sound honours.
The list of 2012 BAFTA winners is as follows:
Best Film - The Artist
Best British Film - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Best Actor - Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Best Actress - Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Best Supporting Actor - Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Best Supporting Actress - Octavia Spencer (The Help)
Best Director - Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Outstanding British Film - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Best Original Screenplay - The Artist
Best Adapted Screenplay - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Best Visual Effects - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Best Animation - Rango
Best Cinematography - The Artist
Best Editing - Senna
Best Production Design - Hugo
Best Costume Design - The Artist
Best Make-Up & Hair - The Iron Lady
Best Score - Ludovic Bource (The Artist)
Best Sound - Hugo
Best Foreign Language Film - The Skin I Live In
Best Documentary - Senna
Best Animated Film - Rango
Best Animated Short - A Morning Stroll
Best Live Action Short - Pitch Black Heist
Best Debut by a British Writer/Director/Producer - Paddy Considine (Tyrannosaur)
Orange Rising Star Award - Adam Deacon (Anuvahood)