Set in contemporary Paris, the movie is a variation of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus. Here, Orpheus is a poet who becomes obsessed with Death (the Princess), while one of Death's associates, Heurtebise, entertains analogous unrequited love for Eurydice. They fall in love. Orpheus's wife, Eurydice, is killed by the Princess' henchmen and Orpheus goes after her into the Underworld. Although they have become dangerously entangled, the Princess sends Orpheus back out of the Underworld, to carry on his life with Eurydice. This diverges from the common classical account found in the Roman versions of the myth by Ovid and Virgil, where Eurydice is lost forever, but hearkens back to the earliest extant versions of the myth by the Greek poets Simonides and Ibycus in which Orpheus is successful in his quest.
Throughout Orpheus , Cocteau uses very simple special effects and trick shots to show his characters passing into the world of death and back to life: They do so by stepping through mirrors, or else Cocteau simply runs the film backward.
Cocteau adds many elements from the culture of his time. For example, the messengers of the Princess of Death are grim, leather-clad motorcyclists. The underworld is represented by buildings in France which were still in ruins after World War II, and Orpheus's trial in the underworld is presented in the manner of an inquest held by officials of the German occupation attempting to discover members of the French resistance. At the very end of the film, the Princess and Heurtebise are prisoners, brought forward to face the tribunal, ominously elevated on a pedestal above them.
Most notably, the element of the myth in which Orpheus looks back at Eurydice as she is being led out of the underworld, exactly what he was told not to do and which causes him to lose her, is represented by Orpheus happening to glance at Eurydice in the rear-view mirror of a car.