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Symbolic Serene Submersion

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"Using different aesthetical and technical strategies, contemporary cinema shows immersed and drowning bodies to represent and express intimacy and protection, suspense and fear, obsession and depression, state of shock, past or infancy trauma, hallucinations and nightmares, etc."
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Symbolic Serene Submersion is a versatile visual metaphor where a person is passively submerged in an ocean, pool, or other body of water for symbolic reasons.

Something about their weightlessness, surrounded by calming cool blues and muffled sounds, suggests serenity—meditation, incipience, or a similar state of being. Water tends to be associated with emotion and the subconscious, and passive immersion can be a way to show a character settling down into their feelings and perhaps returning to a womb-like state. The stillness provides a pause for the audience as well, encouraging them to slow down and reflect on what the submerged character is experiencing.

However, the lack of struggle is just as often played as Dissonant Serenity, especially if the character is drowning or in danger of drowning: It can signify overwhelm, isolation, helplessness, listlessness, capitulation, or emotional suffocation. Particularly unsettling examples will frame already drowned bodies this way, in which case their stillness is more than conscious passivity.

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While the most common variation is to show or describe the character floating completely motionless, some examples can include slight movement, provided the character is surrendering to, rather than struggling against, the water. The primary appeal of these shots in visual media is that they look really cool, especially if the character has clothes and/or hair billowing aesthetically around them. Has some inherent Fanservice potential.

Often a Stock Visual Metaphor. Can result from a Symbolic Baptism, Suicide by Sea, or invocation of the Rule of Pool. Compare Underwater Kiss & Power Floats, which make use of similar aesthetics, and Candlelit Bath & Dive Under the Explosion for similar moments of aquatic respite. May overlap with Blood Is Squicker in Water. Contrast Hollywood Drowning, where the submerged individual is anything but calm. See also Super Not-Drowning Skills.

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Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • One of the iconic scenes from Ghost in the Shell shows the Major allowing herself to sink into the water while wearing diving gear. She comments that the ballast tanks keeping her heavy cyborg body from sinking into the depths provide her with a calmness that tells her that she's still a human inside.
  • Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story: Rena's transformation in episode 3 of the anime has her falling through water as mirrors splash over her, representing her issues with self-image and identity.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion uses images of the characters' passive submerged bodies a lot for advertising, especially for End of Evangelion. It symbolizes the Lotus-Eater Machine that everyone gets stuck in at the climax of the movie, and mostly is played for Surreal Horror (especially since the liquid everyone's suspended in is often red).

    Films — Live Action 
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence: When the android child protagonist jumps into his backyard swimming pool holding on to his human brother, only the human boy is rescued. The protagonist is left drifting at the bottom of the pool forlornly, symbolizing his impotent isolation from the human world.
  • Played with in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: Cameron is too anxious to swim and sits poised by the side of the pool. However, he eventually lets himself drop into the pool on Ferris's urging . . . only to keep sinking and sinking until Ferris jumps in and grabs him. Cameron seems serene, but he is actually bordering on catatonic due to being overwhelmed by his own anxiety and fear. But the pool shows how much Cameron needs Ferris and how desperately he also needs to loosen up.
  • The official trailer for Gone Girl ends with a disturbing shot of Amy, hair arrayed, sinking slowly beneath the water, apparently having been murdered by her husband. This shot is not actually in the movie, where it turns out that Amy is not dead. The book connects this image to Amy's sense of drowning in her marriage to Nick, who is neglectful and cheats on her.
    I've actually felt sad for myself, picturing my slim, naked, pale body, floating just beneath the current, a colony of snails attached to one bare leg, my hair trailing like seaweed until I reach the ocean and drift down down down to the bottom, my waterlogged flesh peeling off in soft streaks, me slowly disappearing into the current like a watercolor until just the bones are left. But I'm a romantic. In real life, if Nick had killed me, I think he would have just rolled my body into a trash bag and driven me to one of the landfills in the sixty-mile radius.
  • The Graduate:
    • Several shots in the early part of the film feature Ben simply floating in his family's pool (lying either on an inflatable or simply in the water), symbolising his uncertainty about his future and feeling of simply being adrift at life.
    • In another sequence when, at yet another party thrown by his parents, Ben is forced to display the scuba gear he recently received, despite his overall unwillingness to be there. The scene is shot from Ben's perspective inside the suit, making the voices and sight of the guests distorted and distant until Ben finally gets to the pool and is able to submerge himself, when it all goes silent, symbolising the disconnect he feels from his parents' social environment and lifestyle, and his subtle wish to escape it all.
  • The Hours: In Virginia Woolf's death scene at the end. The camera focuses on different parts of her body—the ring on her hand, her shoe slipping off—as her lifeless body is carried along with the current.
  • Played for Horror in Let the Right One In. The bullies forcefully hold Oskar's head underwater for three minutes, but Eli shows up and saves the day, and Oskar goes from being forcefully submerged and drowning to peacefully underwater as the disembodied limbs of his bullies are thrown around, marking his transition from prey to predator and his commitment to Eli.
    • Averted in the remake Let Me In. Rather than remaining underwater for the entirety of the massacre, Owen, confused and frightened, swims up to the surface of the water the instant the bully gripping his hair is killed. He then starts coughing up water and taking in breaths rapidly while covered in blood as the remaining bullies are killed offscreen. The scene is still shown as a Symbolic Baptism and transition for Owen as when he composes himself he's looking up at Abby with a mixture of relief and awe showing the beginning of his new life as Abby's partner.
  • Life of Pi: The sinking scene includes a shot where Piscine, while underwater, sees the ship he was on sinking in front of him, and hangs motionless in the water for several seconds, silhouetted by its lights, as though overwhelmed by the enormity of what has happened.
  • At the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam follows Frodo's boat into the water despite being unable to swim, desperate to remain by his side. When he inevitably goes underwater, he flails at first, but then he goes limp and his face assumes a serene expression, demonstrating his willingness to die for Frodo (who saves him, of course).
  • Lucy in the Sky:
    • Played with. During Lucy's astronaut training, she is completing an underwater repair module when her suit ruptures and, because she is upside-down, her helmet begins to fill with water. She insists on finishing the job, simply holding her breath. When she is pulled out, the camera focuses on her completely serene expression, and later her boss comments while reviewing the footage that her heart rate never went above a hundred. This scene demonstrates her extreme self-control and commitment to the space program.
    • The montage that plays near the end of the film while Lucy is delivering her monologue about the effect of being in space and seeing "the whole universe" includes a quick shot of her floating in water, eyes closed and arms outstretched, with stars superimposed over the image as though she were basking in the universe itself like she says she has.
  • Man of Steel: After the oil rig Clark is on blows up, he floats down into the sea below it in a Crucified Hero Shot. His Flashbacks take enough time to justify two lovely shots—one of his silhouette against the explosion on the surface, and one where he is framed beside a whale and its baby. The immersion is a turning point in the story, prompting him to muster his resolve.
  • Mary Magdalene (2018) begins with a long series of shots of Mary floating deep beneath the water, a loose garment clinging to her, while her opening monologue plays in voiceover. This seems to symbolize both her surrender to the higher powers guiding her and her own ability to dive deep into spirituality. The film ends with a repeat of some of these shots, except this time other figures can be seen in the water above Mary, suggesting that her testimony paved the way for others to find Christ.
  • In Minority Report, the Precogs lie immersed in a cool blue pool, serenely dreaming their visions. The water is representative of their receptive, subconscious state as well, it turns out, as the unreliability of their predictions.
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians: In his first scene, Percy is sitting at the bottom of a pool, looking relaxed. Much later, after he learns that he's Poseidon's son and can breathe water, he sleeps in a motel pool. It's implied that being underwater helps him feel connected to his busy deity father.
  • In the finale to The Piano, Ada nearly drowns when she is pulled overboard by a piano. She does not struggle at first, and there are several shots showing her being pulled down, heavy skirts trailing up around her, with a calm, resigned expression on her face. The piano itself represents a past she is unwilling to let go of.
  • The Inciting Incident of The Sea Inside is a cliff dive gone wrong. The protagonist misjudges the depth and runs head first into the sea floor, leaving him quadriplegic. In the flashbacks showing the accident, he is shown floating limply below the surface.
    Julia: Were you left unconscious?
    Ramon: No, I was just there . . . face down. Floating. You know, it's true what they say about those that are about to die, that all of a sudden you get to see the most important moments of your life. That happened to me.
  • The Shape of Water: Happens multiple times, all of which feature the main character Elisa. She has an unnatural level of comfort with water, and water generally symbolizes serenity and comfort in spite of a harsh outside world.
    • The opening scene is a fantasy sequence showing Elisa's apartment submerged, objects in the room are floatingnote , and Elisa is sleeping above her couch.
    • After the Amphibian Man gets to Elisa's house, she floods her bathroom with water and hugs him while they're both naked.
    • In the final scene, Elisa is in a flooded dry dock. Elisa's scars turn into gills, and she hugs the Amphibian Man in a way similar to how she did in her bathroom, this time while clothed.
  • In Thoroughbreds, Lily and Amanda play a game to see who can hold their breath longest underwater. Lily holds hers for an extremely long time, and Amanda gets concerned and swims down to pull Lily up, which is symbolic of Lily's growing murderous feelings for her stepfather and foreshadowing that while Lily will eventually commit the murder, Amanda is the one who takes the fall for it, almost gladly.
  • Titanic (1997): During a montage driving home the destruction of the ship when it is partially submerged, one particularly artsy shot shows a woman's body floating weightless in the newly-subaquatic main hall, her face obscured by her billowing dress and hair.
  • Twilight: New Moon: After Bella jumps off a sea cliff, she floats limply down through the water and hallucinates Edward floating beside her. It's not a genuine suicide attempt, but something of a cry for attention symbolizing the depths she is willing to reach for Edward.
  • A fairly traditional example occurs in You Were Never Really Here when the protagonist Joe attempts a Suicide by Sea following the murder of his mother. The camera holds on him slowly sinking for a long time as he empties his lungs, until a vision of Nina reminds him he still has something to live for and he triumphantly swims back up to the surface. The scene is shot as a heavy contrast between the black depths Joe is sinking into and the golden sunlight shining in from above, symbolically demonstrating the conflict between his suicidal impulses and his desire to do good in the world.

    Literature 
  • Gideon the Ninth: Harrowhark confesses her family's Dark Secret, the source of her own misery and her lifelong torment of Gideon, while she and Gideon are treading water in a large pool. She goes still and calm when Gideon pulls her underwater... because she thinks Gideon is drowning her; she only starts to thrash when she realizes it's a hug.
  • "The Pull" (the first story in Verge: Stories) is about the symbolism and significance of complete submersion. The POV character grew up in a war-torn country, where swimming and being below the water were her only escape from the horrors of everyday life, and many passages describe scenes of temporary sub-aquatic respite:
    There is a pull for some people when they are in big water. A pull no own talks about. The pull comes to people whose lives are too weighted. People whose lives break the story and travel to realms everyone else fears. The pull is cool and warm at the same time; it releases a body back to history; it is something like amniotic fluid, only stronger. Most people who feel the pull let themselves go down a little, sink underwater some. They let their arms and legs go limp, and they close their eyes and hold their breath with superhuman calm. The kind of calm that comes to those people who believe as children that they can breathe underwater.
  • The Wheel of Time: Nynaeve is usually only able to channel the One Power while angry. However, when she nearly drowns in a sinking ship, the strange serenity of the Near-Death Experience overcomes that mental block and allows her to channel freely from then on, saving her life.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Arrangement (2017): After breaking up with her boyfriend in the pilot, Megan is seen submerging under the pool in a fetal position, to symbolize her mental state.
  • Breaking Bad S5E4, "Fifty-One": Skylar walks slowly into her backyard pool in what might be a genuine suicide attempt and might be a desperate ploy to get her children taken out of the house and away from Walt, and there are several beautiful shots showing her floating passively under the water with her hair and clothes billowing and a calm expression on her face. The pale blue she's surrounded by (which the show associates both with Walt's signature meth and with Skylar's optimism), coupled with the monologue Walt is delivering as she walks in (about everything she's done for him), creates the impression that she is literally drowning in Walt's criminal enterprises and her own failure to put a stop to them.
  • Hannibal:
    • In the first episode of Season 3, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier submerges herself in a bathtub and imagines herself sinking passively down into deep, dark water, possibly symbolizing her sense of being slowly drawn further into Hannibal's deluded games. (Water symbolism is used throughout the series to represent Hannibal's growing influence over those around him: both Will Graham and Alana Bloom have similar dreams or hallucinations shortly before awakening to the reality of Hannibal's manipulations.)
    • In the next episode, Will imagines himself being drowned in the blood gushing from the black stag that represents his relationship with Hannibal. One shot shows him floating limply downward in the red water, much like Bedelia in the previous episode.

    Music 
  • Devon Baldwin:
    • The cover art to her first EP, Lungs, shows Baldwin lying still, immersed in dark water, with her open mouth barely above the surface. The track "Ocean" explains the symbolism, using the ocean as a metaphor for difficulties she has faced and barely gotten through—in particular, a lung injury she suffered which nearly ended her singing career.
    • The Music Video to "Underwater" shows the singer calmly submerged in a pool of water, symbolizing the many emotions her lover makes her feel.
      It feels like I can breathe underwater
      I can feel you pulling me through
  • Beyoncé's Lemonade: The prologue to the "Hold Up" video takes place entirely underwater. Shots of Beyonce floating in her flooded apartment while delivering the opening monologue in voiceover represent her overwhelming emotions in response to being cheated on. The video proper begins with her pushing open the front doors, releasing the water, and walking out confidently.
  • Dessa's "Sound the Bells" begins with a Crucified Hero Shot of the singer floating motionless below the water, barefoot, silhouetted against the sun, and surrounded by a loose garment. The video then flashes back, showing scenes of her staring at and touching the ocean, intercut with shots of the famous Molinere underwater statues, before she finally dives in as if to join them. The song's lyrics discuss the Rapture using nautical and sailing metaphors.
    A higher tide will wash it all
    Wash it all away
  • Pink Floyd's film, The Wall: During the song "The Thin Ice," the protagonist has a nightmare that involves floating in his pool, surrounded by dark clouds of blood. At first he thrashes and claws at his skin, but by the end of the song, he has surrendered, and floats still in a Crucified Hero Shot, as though accepting his own drowning.
  • The promotional materials for Hozier's second album, Wasteland, Baby!, heavily feature images and clips of Hozier in a flooded room, including some where he floats freely (white shirt and iconic long hair spreading out around him). Head photographer Andrew Hozier-Byrne (Hozier's brother) describes the thought process behind the imagery:
    There's a great deal of doom and gloom enjoyed within the album, and an end of times-ness to it, so I think the shoot and what we're aiming for here reflects some of that. It actually reflects one or two of the lyrical themes as well in one or two numbers, which is nice.
  • An unsettling example is Ibeyi's "River" video, which is a single long shot showing the twin singers side by side, with their faces under the water. While the fists on their chests suggest they are being held down, both appear completely calm, periodically opening their eyes and lifting their faces out of the water to sing before returning to submersion. The song's lyrics speak of a desire to be washed clean by the waters of the river goddess Oshun.
  • Harry Styles: The video to "Falling," where his parlor slowly fills up with water, contains several shots of Styles floating, singing under the water. He's wearing a frilly white blouse with a long train, clearly chosen to look good suspended around him. The song's lyrics describe slowly but inexorably becoming someone he doesn't want to be—a process, like the water flowing from his piano, which he fears but is powerless against.
    What am I now?
    What if I'm someone I don't want around?
  • Taylor Swift: The image that accompanies "Breathe" in the liner notes to Fearless show Taylor floating under the surface of the water, her gauzy dress billowing out around her. The song's lyrics describe a difficult breakup, with Taylor lamenting, "I can't breathe without you."
  • The video to Meghan Trainor's "Underwater" shows slow-mo shots of models suspended under the water with their hair and decorative scarves arrayed. The water, here, represents passion and love.
    Let gravity pull harder
    We'll go underwater ...
    Weightless and unbothered ...
    I ain't afraid to drown with you
  • The xx: The song "Chained" discusses a couple drifting apart and becoming more isolated from each other. In the music video, both vocalists are immersed in water, but whereas the frontman is shown swimming actively in a restless ocean, the frontwoman begins the video by jumping into a calm reservoir, and many shots show her floating passively down toward the bottom. At the end of the video, her bandmates jump in after her, and only once she sees them does she begin to swim up and resist the water.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Lesear Effect in Blue Planet is this in-universe. On first entering the seas of Poseidon, aquaforms get a blissful sensation that feels like the planet itself is welcoming them, and just tend to hang there for a while.

    Theatre 
  • Gertrude describes Ophelia's death-by-drowning this way in Hamlet, and many, many art pieces exist demonstrating her helplessness and eventual surrender to the water.
    Gertrude: Her clothes spread wide,
    And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
    Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
    As one incapable of her own distress
    Or like a creature native and endued
    Unto that element. But long it could not be
    Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
    Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
    To muddy death.

    Video Games 
  • Divinity: Original Sin II opens with a playable prologue on a Prison Ship, which ends with the Kraken crushing said ship, throwing the Player Character into the water. Just before they drown, however, a mysterious voice speaks to them and warps them to the shore. This is a symbolic rebirth for the character, as it is later revealed that the voice belongs to their respective patron god, who, by saving them from drowning, sets them on the path to become the next Divine, i.e. avatar of the gods.
  • Encouraged (but at the player's discretion) in Inside. After the Player Character gains his Super Not-Drowning Skills, he traverses many vast, flooded areas, sometimes with fish in them. At any time the player can put down the controller and just watch him float as long as they'd like. This plays with the game's themes of depth, pressure, and control versus surrender.

    Webcomics 
  • Sleepless Domain: Undine's The Dream consists of her falling through a space of dimly lit water, inhabited by glowing jellyfish symbolizing the members of Team Alchemical, before falling through the floor and into the mysterious space where the Woman in White resides. This represents her (at the time) passive, non-confrontational personality and status as a support.

    Western Animation 
  • BoJack Horseman: BoJack falling into his pool and floating powerlessly to the bottom is a constant of the show's opening, symbolizing his feelings of disconnectedness, loneliness, and personal struggles.
  • Love, Death & Robots, "Zima Blue": A blue-tiled swimming pool represents the happiness and fulfilment that eluded the titular artist throughout his career. For his final work, he calmly immerses himself in the pool. He then reveals himself to be a pool cleaning robot who had grown beyond its programming, sheds his humanoid body and intelligence, and goes back to the simple pleasure of cleaning the pool.
    Zima Blue: My search for truth is finished at last... I'm going home.


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