Christmas Eve in a garret in Paris
Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, are finding it difficult to work. It is cold in their garret. Rodolfo generously sacrifices his latest play to make a short-lived fire in the stove.
Their friend Colline, a philosopher, joins them. He has just made a futile attempt to pawn his books on Christmas Eve. Schaunard, a musician, arrives shortly thereafter. To everyone’s surprise, he brings food, wine, wood, and money earned from an odd engagement: an eccentric Englishman had paid him to play a parrot to death. The money is still lying on the table when Benoît, the landlord, drops by unexpectedly to collect the overdue rent. The four artists get him drunk and manage to send him away empty-handed.
They decide to spend Christmas Eve at Café Momus. Rodolfo remains behind in order to finish writing a newspaper article. There is a knock at the door: Mimì, a neighbor, asks for a light for her candle, which has gone out. She loses her key, which the two of them seek in the dark. Rodolfo makes sure that they do not find it too quickly.
They draw closer to one another and fall in love. When Rodolfo’s friends call to him from below, the new couple goes with them to Café Momus.
A lively Christmas crowd fills the Latin Quarter. Street vendors hawk their wares; children crowd around Parpignol, who sells toys.
The four Bohemians spend their money; Rodolfo buys a bonnet for Mimì. Finally, the group meets for dinner at Café Momus, where Musetta, Marcello’s former mistress, also turns up with a new, wealthy admirer, Alcindoro. Marcello is jealous. Musetta provokes him and then sends Alcindoro away on an errand so that she can return to Marcello. The two couples, Colline, and Schaunard depart in high spirits. When Alcindoro returns, he will have to pay the bill for the entire party.
A February morning on the outskirts of the city
Marcello is working as a »bar painter« in a tavern on the outskirts of the city, where Musetta performs as a singer. Mimì wants to speak to him about Rodolfo’s unfounded jealousy. Marcello advises her to leave him. When Rodolfo arrives, Mimì hides and overhears the real reason for Rodolfo’s behavior: he feels unable to provide for Mimì, who is seriously ill. Mimì emerges from her hiding place. She and Rodolfo now decide to stay together until the end of the winter. After a scene of violent jealousy, Musetta leaves Marcello.
In the garret, six months later
Marcello and Rodolfo are unable to work. Although neither wants to admit it to the other, their thoughts are with Musetta and Mimì, whom they have not seen for a long time. This time Colline and Schaunard arrive with just a meager dinner. The four friends attempt to make the best of the situation by making jokes.
Musetta arrives with Mimì, who is dying and wants to see Rodolfo one more time. Musetta pawns her earrings and Colline his beloved coat so that they can buy medicine, obtain a doctor, and fulfill a last wish for the dying girl. Left alone, Rodolfo and Mimì reminisce about their first meeting. The friends return, and Mimì dies. Rodolfo is the last to realize it.