Signe Baumane opens her sardonically hilarious, sneakily moving, autobiographical animated feature, “Rocks in My Pocket,” with what looks like a darker version of one of those chipper psycho-pharmaceutical ads. A beleaguered woman pushes a boulder up a hill and when she gets to the top, the inevitable happens. She flees the onrushing stone and runs into another one just as baleful, which turns into a fetus in utero.
The image alludes, in part, to Albert Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which he compares life to the eternal punishment of the title king, who must push a big rock up a hillside, only to watch it roll down, over and over. If this is our life, Camus argues, why live?
Baumane agrees, though her approach to this philosophical question is more genetic, biological, and cultural than existential. It’s also a lot funnier, and more personal.
For example, she describes in a voice-over narrative, accompanied by gleefully nightmarish animation, her own obsessive thinking about doing herself in, down to soaping the rope so it operates smoothly when she hangs herself.
Acknowledging that such a preoccupation may not seem normal, she tries to trace the depressive gene back through her family tree. She begins in Latvia in 1949, where a peasant is horrified to see her neighbor Anna, Baumane’s grandmother, standing fully clothed in a shallow river. It seems that, like Virginia Woolf, Anna was trying to drown herself. Unlike Woolf, she forgot to put rocks in her pockets to weigh herself down.
Hence Baumane’s title, and the beginning of an inventive and illuminating verbal and visual metaphor that she artfully and with mordant wit develops throughout the film. She traces the depressive legacy through the generations of those afflicted — all women — relating the sometimes horrific and heartbreaking stories with an arch whimsy, and intercutting the details of her own struggle with the affliction. Her inspired, nightmarish visualization of this indescribable psychic misery might make it more widely comprehensible. The animation comes from a scary, diabolically funny place. Imagine Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” but much darker.
Does “Rocks” get to the bottom of the curse of depression? Is suicide a reasonable response to life’s litany of miseries, especially for those living in a country that has been repeatedly invaded from both east and west and has endured the brutal occupations of both Nazis and Soviets? Baumane notes that all the film’s victims are women, and hints that sexist repression might have as much to do with the problem as the cataclysms of history or errant DNA. As for an answer to Camus’s question — the best argument for living is making movies like this.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.