In the attic
Paris, on Christmas Eve. From the window of the attic where he lives, the poet Rodolfo watches thoughtfully the snowed up Paris roofs, while his friend, Marcello, is painting. Shivering, Rodolfo decides to burn the manuscript he is working on, in order to keep the fire on. The philosopher Colline, their friend, comes in; soon, the musician Schaunard turns up, bringing along a basket of food, wine and fire wood, and telling his friends the trick by which he got a sum of money from a rich Englishman.
The four friends decide to have a good time at the Momus Café in the Latin Quarter. They delay their departure because Benoît, the landlord, comes to cash his rent. Trying to divert his attention from the money due, the young ones offer him a drink and incite the ludicrous old man to speak about his love affairs. Then, pretending to be indignant with the landlord’s frivolousness, they send him away, eluding once again the payment of the rent. The young men depart, leaving Rodolfo behind. He remains in the attic for a while, finishing an article for the magazine he has been working with.
A shy knock on the door stops him. It is Mimi, his neighbour, whose candle light went off and who asks Rodolfo’s permission to light up her candle from his fire. The girl gets sick and starts coughing; Rodolfo helps her carefully to the door. Mimì remembers that she has forgotten her key and comes back. The candle light goes off again, because of the draught. In the dark, the hands of the two young people meet, and a romance begins between them.
Suddenly, they decide to go together to the cafeteria where the other friends are waiting for Rodolfo.
The Latin Quarter
The streets of the Latin Quarter in Paris are full of people. Rodolfo buys from a peddler a pink bonnet for his beloved. The girl is introduced to the three friends, who welcome her warmly. On the sidewalk, Parpignol, the toy peddler, passes by, surrounded by children’s cheerful yelling. Disappointed in love, Marcello is overwhelmed with sadness.
They all take seats around a table in the Momus Café. Musetta, the painter’s former sweetheart, comes in. She wears rich, elegant clothes, and leans against the arm of a ridiculous, though rich, old man named Alcindoro. They sit down at a table next to the young ones’. Musetta is still in love with Marcello. The painter is also very troubled by this meeting. Musetta starts singing a song, in an attempt to show her grace and frivolousness, hoping to call thus her ex-lover’s attention. Marcello gets more and more restless. Pretending to feel a severe pain in her foot, Musetta sends Alcindoro to buy her another pair of shoes.
Then, she flings herself unhesitatingly into Marcello’s arms. Cheerful, the six young people leave the cafeteria, as they realize that Schaunard’s money is not enough to pay the bill.
Alcindoro comes back with a new pair of shoes for Musetta, but all he finds is the young people’s bill, left by his beloved.
In Paris suburbs
End of February; the snow covers the whole city. Marcello and Musetta live at an inn, in the suburbs of Paris. Pained with coughing, Mimì comes to Marcello and tells him about the disagreements between herself and Rodolfo.
Rodolfo, who has spent the night at the inn, shows up. Mimì hides so he will not see her. While talking to Marcello, Rodolfo reveals the true reason for his estranging from his sweetheart: Mimì suffers from consumption, death is threatening her, and she should seek salvation beside a rich protector. They lead a poor and miserable life. He is unable to help her and, as broken hearted as he is, he has to part with her.
Shocked with these words, betrayed by her coughing, Mimì approaches Rodolfo, in an attempt to say good bye. Their love is as strong and true as it used to be at its very first moment. The two of them delay their separation until the season of blooming flowers. Mimì gives Rodolfo, in her memory, her pink bonnet.
Meanwhile, Marcello and Musetta lead their usual life with daily disputes. Their last quarrel ends with a final separation.
In the attic
Back alone in their attic, Rodolfo and Marcello think of their former sweethearts, Mimì and Musetta. Colline and Schaunard, who are unemployed, show up. Mocking at their own fate, the four young men try to forget their overwhelming misery.Musetta comes in and tells them that, after parting with Rodolfo, Mimì became the protégée of a rich noble man. As she could not forget Rodolfo, she left the viscount, and now she is at the ground floor of the building where the young people lived, gravely ill and too weak to climb the stairs by herself. Rodolfo hurries down the stairs. Musetta tells them how, being in love, Mimì wished to see her lover for the last time, as she feels her death was near. Exhausted, Mimì crumbles on a bed. Musetta takes off her ear rings and gives them to Marcello, telling him to sell them, and then to buy medicine and call a doctor. Colline will sell her winter coat in order to help his friend. Rodolfo and Mimì remember their happy moments. The tiny pink bonnet is under the poor girl’s pillow. Musetta buys her a warm muff, which she has wanted for a long time.
After a severe fit of coughing, Mimì passes away, a smile on her lips, beside Rodolfo. With her death, the whole bohème seems to have vanished forever.