On Christmas Eve, a group of bohemians living in Paris are barely surviving the harsh winter. They keep warm by feeding their stove with pages from the poet Rodolfo’s latest poem.
When Schaunard the musician arrives with funds from his latest commission, the group celebrate their good fortune. The landlord Benoît arrives, demanding rent but the group get him drunk instead. They all head out to celebrate but Rodolfo stays behind. Whilst alone, his neighbour Mimì knocks at the door asking for a light, as hers has gone out and she cannot find her way in the dark. Rodolfo, instantly infatuated, invites her to the café and they leave together.
On a busy street in the Latin Quarter, Rodolfo and Mimì join the rest of the group at Café Momus. The painter Marcello spots his ex-lover Musetta with her wealthy admirer Alcindoro, though it is clear she has grown bored with him. Longing to return to Marcello, she sings a risqué song in order to get his attention. Musetta then orders Alcindoro away and steals a chance to fall into Marcello’s arms. When the bill arrives for their meal, Musetta declares that Alcindoro will pay for it when he returns, and they quickly flee the scene.
Months later, Rodolfo and Mimì, though now a couple, are weathering tough times. Rodolfo is driven to despair by Mimì’s illness, which he fears is slowly killing her. Knowing that he can do nothing to help in the abject poverty in which they live, he has taken to being jealous and unkind in order to drive her away.
When Mimì discovers this, she confronts Rodolfo and the two agree to separate but are unable to do so right away. They agree to wait until spring. Musetta and Marcello also separate, much less amicably, after a fierce argument.
Spring has come and gone, and Rodolfo and Mimì have separated. Marcello tells Rodolfo that Mimì has since started seeing a wealthy viscount and is living like a queen.
However, Musetta arrives later that day with a desperately ill Mimì, who she found wandering the streets. Together they help her to bed and each rush off to sell their belongings for medicine. Rodolfo and Mimì both declare their love for each other. Mimì is overwhelmed with a violent coughing fit, after which she drifts off to sleep. Shortly after Schaunard announces that she has died and Rodolfo weeps by her side…