When quizzed at Cannes about the public’s response to his new film Holy Motors, an art-on-roids indie that lingers garishly in the memory like the dance moves of a high-powered beast, a kind of cinematic Big Foot seen once, never forgotten, and not necessarily for the right reasons, French director Leos Carax quipped: “I don’t know who the public is, except a bunch of people who will soon be dead.”

That quote seems to have come not just from the director of the film but, deliciously, from the character of the film itself. It’s an intoxicating blend of tragedy, comedy and random ephemeral splatter that forms a string of contradictory impulses: a sort of uplifting morbidity, a vial of arsonic-infused laughing gas lifted from a dream factory populated by sad clowns.

If that description sounds a bit weird, wait until you see the film. The shape-shifting human centrepiece to Holy Motors is actor Denis Lavant, who plays nine separate characters in nine separate vignettes, plus the character, Monsieur Oscar, who plays all of them.

Oscar is a sort of vaudevillian gun for hire. He has a cache of nine contracts and each one requires a startling transformation in temperament, age, gender, etcetera. To describe details of his haphazard adventures might ordinarily spoil the fun, if Holy Motors didn’t so often spill into the realm of the virtually indescribable.

There’s a classic segment with a yeti-like beast of a man (pictured above) who scarfs down flowers and roses pilfered from cemetery headstones, a great gag involving a couple of ridiculously domesticated monkeys and a plethora of random quirks.

Countering the emotionless haze of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, another film that orbits around a protagonist in a white limousine who embarks on a series of strange encounters, Holy Motors is guilt-less joshing around for art cinema enthusiasts. Lowbrow impulses in highbrow surrounds; a patch of vomit-stained carpet at the Vatican.

Carax lingers precariously on the border of pretentious high art and smug self-awareness. He narrowly avoids spilling over into either side of the divide but persistently wink-winks the audience, in the manner of an elaborate unexplained piss-take about the glorious redundancy of it all — coupled with the tantalising idea that there may be a great deal of method to his madness.

Some vignettes work better than others and the 115 minute running time comes with a pinch for audiences who don’t find themselves swept up in the spectacle. The film is intentionally episodic in the manner of a patchwork quilt stitched together by thespian stoners on an acid trip after chewing on a gland of human adrenaline. A lot energy. A lot of craziness.

For lovers of cinema Holy Motors is probably a must-see, but in sad clown cinema as sporadic and strange as this, even a rock solid recommendation seems to be slippery territory, like dancing on an oil slick or balancing a piece of toast on top of a half-eaten rose.

Holy Motors’ Australian theatrical release date: August 23, 2012.