A creative team, consisting of four young men, who consider themselves each as poet, painter, musician and philosopher, ad-lib through their daily life in the constant expectancy of the one sensational event: the ultimate breakthrough that will ensure their public significance.
The actual situation is precarious: on Christmas Eve, hunger and cold have settled in at their collective studio, but in spite of poverty and severe discomfort, they are determined to celebrate Christmas together. Schaunard comes to the rescue of his comrades by surprising them with cash and proper food. Now they feel invigorated and in the right mood to join the festive Christmas shopping spree - and to party into oblivion afterwards.
They are, however, held up by their landlord, who demands the rent. They lure him into a trap. Whilst bragging of his exploits, the landlord realized too late that he has exposed too much. In his haste to escape his tenants' mockery, he leaves without the rent.
The poet Rodolfo stays frustratedly behind at the studio to finish some work commissioned for a local newspaper. Fate knocks on his door. What follows is the inevitable and eternal story of two people who are attracted to each other and who thereby seize the chance to feel rescued in mutual love and happiness. In the embroidery worker Mimì, Rodolfo has found his muse and discovers her promising artistic talent.
Huge crowds of shoppers and hoards of vendors scurry through the Mall. The Bohemians try to attract attention by chasing away people from their seats and by occupying a prominent table at Café Momus. They ceremoniously accept Mimì into their group. To celebrate their public feast, they join forces
with all of the children buzzing through the streets by handing out toy weapons to the children.
Musetta - the self-declared Diva of Suburbia - enters in the company of her current love interest, the aged financier Alcindoro. Breathtakenly unscrupulous and for the sole benefit of Marcello, Musetta
stages a magnificent scandal, which her former lover cannot resist and they fall into each other's arms. The Bohemians triumph and are the very centre of attention. Public order begins to crumble, anarchy sets in, bills remain unpaid and Christmas disintegrates into a kind of carneval procession, chaos reigns and takes over the Mall.
On a cold winter morning in a dark alley - meeting point for night workers of various professions - Mimì is looking for Marcello, who has found work and accommodation with Musetta in an establishment of ill repute. Mimì is unwell and in despair. The happiness of the festive season is over and her life with Rodolfo has become intolerable. She asks Marcello for help in ending their relationship. He sends her home and questions Rodolfo, who hides from Mimì, about the reasons for their failed relationship.
Rodolfo confesses that Mimì has contracted a terminal illness. And as he cannot help her he is inconsolable. Mimì has overheard the conversation, understands the situation she is in. She attempts to leave Rodolfo immediately, but fails to do so. They decide to spend the winter months together and to hold each other closely until »the flowers bloom again«.
Marcello and Musetta however cannot bear each other's company any longer. They separate after a horrible argument – she confesses to leaving him because of his incompetent work as a professional painter, whilst he discloses of leaving her because of her dubious past. Their love has come to the end.
The creative team is finally together again, but the »flowers have faded«. Mimì is gone and Musetta has never been heard of again. So what is it that remains for these friend who are now brooding over pieces of blank paper and untouched canvases? They wallow in happy memories and try to overcome the bleakness of their situation by embracing and living up to the pretense of leading a Bohemian's happy life: They have made their studio into an art gallery and life their lives in full view of the visitors to the exhibition.
Musetta interrupts the quartet and drives them to total despair. Behind Musetta, the dying Mimì enters - dragging herself not into the security of her friendsʼ studio which she hoped for, but into the bright lights of the art market.