Romeo awakens from his ecstasy trip with his face plunged into a sink full of cold water. Catching his breath, he rips off his mask and stares into the mirror, seeing in it a large aquarium full of fish, which he turns around to inspect. Romeo adoringly gazes at the dozens of yellow and blue tropical fish floating and darting though the aquarium tank. Back in the celebration hall, an African-American woman with flowers in her hair has begun singing a slow, romantic ballad, accompanied by a trio of string players. Romeo's eyes continue to follow the dancing fish before him, leaning down to peer through the coral, until he spots a human eye staring back at him.
Romeo startles, and then takes in the face of the woman on the opposite side of the aquarium—it is Juliet, dressed as an angel. He lock eyes with the mysterious stranger for a moment; Romeo raises his eyebrows suggestively, and Juliet turns her gaze away bashfully and then looks back, a subtle smile beginning to animate her expression. Eyes locked once more, their faces begin to drift in unison across the surfaces of the aquarium glass, with the water generating the optical illusion that their faces are intimately close together. Romeo presses his nose against the glass, which causes Juliet to break into a wide smile. He beckons her near, so that they can share a proxy kiss from opposite sides of the aquarium glass. At that moment, The Nurse bursts in and tells Juliet her mother requires her. Juliet manages to flash Romeo one last smile before she is yanked forcefully out of the room.
Romeo rushes out of the room after Juliet, whom he sees has been led by The Nurse into Paris's arms, so that the two may share a dance. Dressed as an astronaut, Paris extends his arm to Juliet in a gallant but corny manner, as the Nurse and Gloria Capulet crowd around the two, shamelessly eager to see the two dance together. Across the room, Tybalt suddenly recognizes the now-unmasked Romeo and vows to kill him, before he is stopped by Fulgencio, who angrily forbids him from inciting violence in the middle of his party, striking him across the face when Tybalt threatens to disobey him.
Juliet and Paris continue to dance as Romeo watches from afar. Clearly uncomfortable, Juliet attempts to throw fleeting glances Romeo's way while politely entertaining Paris's attention. Clearly enraptured, Romeo whispers to himself that he "never saw true beauty 'til this night." As Paris tries to woo Juliet with increasingly cheesy gestures and smiles, Romeo exchanges a series of knowing glances with her from across the room. As the ballad draws to a close, balloons and confetti begin to fall from the ceiling, and everyone faces forward to watch. Romeo creeps up behind Juliet, grabs her hand, and pulls her against a column, partially concealing himself from Paris and the others.
Romeo asks Juliet for a kiss, but she rebukes him by saying that they should begin by holding hands. Romeo flirtatiously persists, and leans in to kiss her, though Juliet initially demurs and turns her head away. Romeo then whirls Juliet into an elevator, the doors close, and while Gloria, Paris, and the others are preoccupied, he embraces her in a passionate kiss. The elevator door dings open once more, and Juliet playfully rebukes Romeo's advances once more before the sight of Paris and her mother lead her to rejoin Romeo in the elevator. After they manage to steal another few moments and another kiss, Juliet is whisked away by The Nurse again, this time for good, and led up the stairs into Gloria and Paris's company.
Following closely behind, Romeo gazes up at Juliet on the landing next to her mother and Paris and realizes that she is not merely a party attendee—she is a member of the House of Capulet. Juliet senses the look of fearful recognition on his face, as The Nurse leans in to tell her that Romeo is a Montague. As the party is breaking up, she climbs to an interior balcony and watches Romeo from above as he returns her gaze before finally being led out of the mansion by a half-dressed Mercutio.
On their way out, the men pass through metal detectors and reclaim their guns. Romeo keeps looking back toward the balconies along the mansion's outer wall, where Juliet keeps appearing. Watching him leave in the Montague convertible amid fresh fireworks, she delivers a soliloquy mourning the fact that Romeo is "my only love sprung from my only hate." Tybalt, also watching Romeo and the other Montague boys take their leave, vows his revenge.
Water and water imagery are some of the most pervasive symbols of the film, ones that accompany Romeo and Juliet both separately and in nearly every scene they share together. We first see Juliet from below when her face is underwater, and we first see Romeo smoking a cigarette against a beachfront. They first see each other through aquarium glass, and they share their first kiss in a swimming pool. In addition to symbolizing purity and innocence, water as a symbol works in tandem the color blue, evoking sadness, death, social barriers, and fate. Luhrmann also uses other reflective surfaces like windows, mirrors, and glass in combination with aquatic images, emphasizing their shared qualities of reflection and transparency.
The moment when Romeo tears off his mask and awakens in a shallow sink of water is a pivotal shift in the momentum of this sequence of the film, marking a visual and sonic break from the disordered tumult of the celebration hall toward a quiet, romantic state of repose. Romeo's attention moves from the water in the sink, to the mirror ahead of him, to the aquarium behind him filled with water—a deferred series of water/glass images that complete a visual analogy concerning the mysteriousness and sublimity of perception, and anticipate the momentousness of Juliet's imminent, but also continually delayed, appearance.
When Juliet does appear, we see her eye in an extreme close-up: an arrival that settles all the imagery and metaphors around vision on a human eye. Juliet is looking at Romeo through the barrier of the aquarium glass, which creates the appearance that his face is closer than it actually is. This optical illusion is a multifaceted metaphor that can refer to a number of the film's themes—the way love can distort and heighten one's perceptions, the way the human will naturally aspires to overcome barriers in search of true intimacies, and the way the media of theater and cinema themselves essentially aim to hold viewers in the thrall of an elaborate illusion, based entirely in spectacle and magic. The aquarium surface creates a two-dimensional tableau—not unlike a painting, a television, or a movie theater screen—in which Romeo and Juliet may gaze romantically at the image of the other.
The aquarium scene is essentially Luhrmann's visual poem about the nature of "love at first sight"—a theme that remains one of the most enduring legacies of Shakespeare's play. It is the only scene in the film in which no words are spoken, at least until The Nurse intrudes and forcibly removes Juliet from the room. Sight and perception—rather than speech and communication—are foregrounded as the mysterious wellsprings from which feelings of romantic love first emerge, and which the mind then struggles to rationalize and describe using the medium of language. "Did my heart love 'til now?" Romeo asks himself. "Forswear it, sight!" His mind struggles to comprehend the beauty of Juliet's image.
This sequence also uses the division between "upstairs" and "downstairs" spaces as a key symbol for the social barriers keeping Romeo and Juliet apart. Initially, in the throes of their first kiss, Romeo and Juliet are freewheeling up and down in an automatic elevator, able to not only use the space as a sanctuary but move freely between the upper and lower levels of the party. This mobility is countered by Juliet's later sequestering upstairs. Moreover, Juliet climbing the stairs of the Capulet mansion signals the exact moment when they both realize they belong to warring families.