Louis Vuitton’s allegory of Christ: unpacking LV’s enigmatic ad campaign

Louis Vuitton’s new one-minute film tells us much about the world’s most desirable luggage company, and just as much about ourselves: our history, and our society and its hopes, its day dreams, and its anxieties.

The film’s title — L’Invitation Au Voyage (“Invitation to the Voyage” — is taken from the poem of the same name by Charles Baudelaire, published in his best-known work, Fleaurs du Mal (“Flowers of Evil”).

Through the short movie, we follow a young woman on a journey, to where exactly, we aren’t sure. Mystery — or, to use that word beloved by art schools, ambiguity — is essential to the narrative. Soon we see her running through the Louvre, Paris’s best known museum, which played a large role in Dan Brown’s best seller, The Da Vinci Code. The architecture encapsulates history in its very fabric and design, and though beautiful in its own right, the Louvre is more important than a merely interesting backdrop. It is part of the puzzle.

A popular, and not a scholarly book, The Da Vinci Code nevertheless reminded people that there was a long history of religion, symbols, and mystery in Europe, and that by exploring them we could somehow become a part of them. Not surprisingly, in LV’s L’Invitation Au Voyage we find a number of shots that are designed to strike us as both clues and symbols. In the opening scene, the young woman shows us a key that she’s wearing around her neck, prompting us to ask ourselves what it might unlock. In another scene the woman dashes past the Mona Lisa, features prominently in The Da Vinci Code.

More interesting, though, is the second or two that we find the actress passing by “The Wedding Feast at Cana,” a painting by Veronese, which is located opposite the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. This is the largest painting in the museum, with figures in the foreground virtually life size. The actress passes directly in front of the figure of Jesus, who is at the center of the painting.

Founder of the luxury luggage company, Louis Vuitton Malletier was born in 1821 in Cons-le-Sannier. As with Jesus, his father was a carpenter. This may or may not have been on the mind of the movie maker, of course. Nevertheless, aside from reminding us of the enduring power of the Christian myth — whether we ourselves are Christian or not — and of the artistic culture created under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church in particular, Veronese’s painting — like the theme of the movie itself — invokes the idea of a journey. New Advent, an online Catholic encyclopedia, speaks of Jesus’s “first journey,” saying:

“Jesus abandons His hidden life in Nazareth, and goes to Bethania across the Jordan, where He is baptized by John and receives the Baptist’s first testimony to His Divine mission. He then withdraws into the desert of Judea, where He fasts for forty days and is tempted by the devil. After this He dwells in the neighbourhood of the Baptist’s ministry, and receives the latter’s second and third testimony; here too He wins His first disciples, with whom He journeys to the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, where He performs His first miracle.”

According to John 2:1-11, this first miracle was to turn six stone jars of water into wine. It is the theme of ordinariness that is interesting here. It is at a wedding — not in a temple or esoteric ritual — that Jesus performs the miracle of turning water into wine. Ordinary people are there. And in Veronese’s painting of the wedding, he has included 16th century figures in the scene, as if the miracle can be with us in our own time. The actress walking past the painted crowd, that includes high society figures of some centuries ago, brings the painting up to date, by including herself in the scene. Note that the footage has been taken in such a way as to make the painting the physical entire surrounding. We do not see the floor of the Louvre, but the floor in Veronese’s painting.

Here, then, we have two kinds of journey. The first, a physical journey, represented by Jesus’s traveling to Cana and the plot of LV’s L’Invitation Au Voyage. The second type of journey — represented by the miracle — is metaphysical. We can think of these as the exoteric (outer) and esoteric (inner). Baudelaire, from whom — we’ve already noted — the title of L’Invitation Au Voyage was taken, was inspired by the Catholic writer Joseph de Maistre. For the poet, de Maistre was a “soldier animated by the Holy Spirit.” But, in particular, it was the Catholic writer’s notion of evil — and his conviction that, corrupted by original sin, man would always succumb to evil and temptation — that inspired Baudelaire. His Fleurs du Mal (“Flowers of Evil”) has always been associated with seduction, with the cover artwork to this volume of poetry generally depicting a scantily-clad woman.

De Maistre is an interesting and complex character. An opponent of the French Revolution, and an ardent supporter of the Pope and of the notion of Papal infallibility, de Maistre was also a Freemason for much of his life, and an ardent supporter of the semi-mystical society — despite Papal decrees prohibiting Catholics from joining the Freemasonic fraternity.

For de Masitre, Freemasonry’s primal aim was to reunite Christians into one Church (the Catholic Church), a notion that sharply contrasted with the Church’s own view. The roots of Freemasonry extend back into the medieval period, but, as a semi-mystical, moral and philosophical society, it really begins in 1717, in London. The fraternity soon after revised and developed its rituals, and began attracting men especially interested in science, religion, and mysticism. it spread to Europe, where it split into numerous completing factions (or “jurisdictions”) claiming exotic and fanciful origins, such as the Crusades, ancient Egypt, and so on. De Maistre appears to have joined one associated with Catholic mysticism. He was also aware of Christian occultism, and, in particular, with the esoteric works of Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, whom he defended from the charge of “irreligion.” Saint-Martin’s followers were known as the “Illumines”, a name that had also been used by a German society of radical atheists (the “Illuminati”). In his Saint Petersburg Dialogues, de Maistre says,

“This name, illuminess, is given to those disgraceful men who have dared in our own time to conceive and even to organize in Germany, by the most criminal association, the frightful project of killing off Christianity and sovereignty in Europe. The same name is given to the virtuous followers of Saint-Martin, who not only profess Christianity but who work only to raise themselves to the most sublime heights of this divine law. You must admit, gentlemen, that never have men fallen into a greater confusion of ideas.”

The second kind of journey, then, is spiritual. A going within, perhaps. But, more significantly, it is an attempt to unify ourselves with what lies beyond the material, and what we believe to be the cause and purpose of its creation.

Christians regard the Eucharist (the consumption of bread and wine) differently, depending on denomination. For Protestants, it is a purely symbolic act. For Catholics, though, the bread and wine is literally transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ. The physical (or incidental elements) remain the same, according to this doctrine (called “Transubstantiation”), but the “substance” of the bread and wine is made entirely different.

Today, much of the mystery of life has been projected or displaced into material, consumer culture. One of the negative results is that there is the temptation to equate our selves, our worth, our substance, with the things we buy or would like to own. But, on the flip side, there is the tendency, in Western culture, to represent spiritual ideas in things of beauty, even of the most fashionable type. This is often done unconsciously. However, in particular, we see in popular music culture and fashion, conscious attempts to connect these to spirituality — with, for example, esoteric symbols used in music videos. But we can also find it in more ordinary settings. Veronese’s painting reminds us that ordinary relationships and society embodies a spiritual idea. And the Christian Mystery is how the ordinary (bread and wine) can, at the same time, embody the Divine.

A moment after passing Veronese’s painting, we see the woman taking the key from the chain around her neck and unlocking a Louis Vuitton chest. From it she takes a sealed letter, and, from there, walks into the courtyard of the Louvre. Here a red and white hot air balloon awaits here. She climbs in, and floats away.

On the most basic level, the ballon rising from the sepia-tinted Louvre, suggests that contemporary culture arises out of the traditional; that, in other words, the future emerges from, and still somehow brings with it, the past. And, of course, Louis Vuitton luggage continues the tradition of craftsmanship in a world in which Wallmart — known for its giant aircraft hanger like buildings full of cheap, mass-produced goods — is worth more than a number of countries.

But we can read something more into the balloon. The film makers could have placed the action — which describes the narrative of the voyage — on a ship (Baudelaire’s poem invokes canals and streams), a horse, an airplane, etc. But, with the exception of the space rocket, the ballon is unique in launching vertically. It captures our romantic imagination because it is headed directly toward the stars and the heavens, and to the unknown; to what, in the mind of pre-modern man, lies beyond the material universe, i.e., to Heaven, God, etc. The actress’s ascent in the red and white balloon is indicative of a journey toward spiritual understanding. It seems even to draw, unconsciously, on the Resurrection or the “ascension” of Jesus. During the final few seconds of the film, we see red ribbons trailing from the basket of the hot air balloon. It is evocative of the paintings of angels and God, who often wear loose robes that trail behind them, in Christian art.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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