A struggling young poet Rodolfo and his friend Marcello, a painter, are working in a Parisian garret. It is a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, and they have no money for food or firewood. Colline, a student of philosophy, arrives, also broke. Another friend, the musician Schaunard, enters bearing food, drink and firewood. He informs them he has just been paid by a patron. The four of them celebrate.
The landlord Benoit arrives demanding back rent. Unable to pay, the Bohemians distract him with wine. This loosens his tongue and he begins to boast about his extramarital affairs. The bohemians, feigning indignation, throw him out.
Marcello, Colline and Schaunard leave for celebrations at the Café Momus, but Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article he is writing. There is a knock at the door. It is Mimì, a young seamstress who lives upstairs. The wind blows out her candle. She drops her key and they search for it in the darkness. Finding it, Rodolfo tells her of his poetry; Mimì tells him of her life. They fall in love.
Later that night in the Latin Quarter
The four bohemians and Mimì, all in high spirits, join the throng. Hat sellers, toy sellers and vendors of all sorts crowd the streets. The bohemians take a table at the Café Momus and begin to celebrate. Marcello’s ex-girlfriend Musetta enters with Alcindoro, her wealthy and pompous “protector.” She becomes furious when Marcello pretends to ignore her. It is clear that Musetta and Marcello are still interested in each other. She sends Alcindoro away, insisting that he must buy her new shoes. Amid the excitement of a military parade, the lovers and their friends slip away, leaving Alcindoro to pay the bill.
A cold February dawn
Outside a tavern near one of the gates of Paris, a pale and worn Mimì is looking for Rodolfo. She finds Marcello, and tells him of Rodolfo’s insane jealousy. Mimì hides when Rodolfo comes out. Rodolfo tells Marcello that he isn’t jealous: he is terrified that he will be unable to provide for Mimì as her fragile health deteriorates. Mimì coughs, giving away the fact she has been listening. The two lovers embrace and pledge to stay together until spring, even though they both know a long-term relationship is not possible. Marcello and Musetta begin to quarrel and Musetta leaves in anger.
A few months later
It is now spring and both couples have split up. Marcello and Rodolfo try to work, but the memories of happy times with their respective lovers fill them with sadness. Schaunard and Colline arrive to try to raise their spirits. Suddenly Musetta arrives with news: Mimì, desperately ill, has left the rich man she has been living with; she wants to return to Rodolfo for her last hours. Mimì arrives in a state of collapse. Rodolfo and the others attempt to make her comfortable. Musetta sends Marcello out to sell her earrings in order to buy medicine for Mimì. Musetta goes out herself to look for a muff to warm Mimì’s hands; Colline leaves to sell his old coat and thus obtain money for a physician.
Left alone, Rodolfo and Mimì recall their first meeting. The friends return and Colline says the doctor is on his way. Unnoticed by Rodolfo, Mimì dies. When he sees his friends’ faces and realizes the truth, he cries out in anguish.