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In the garret: Christmas Eve in the squalid garret in which four young artists live is hardly likely to be different from any other night. Marcel is working on a painting, Rodolfo, a poet and writer, is looking out over the rooftops of Paris. None of them have any money and they are cold, but nevertheless in good spirits. A bundle of manuscripts provides warmth from the oven only for a few brief moments. Colline, a philosopher by profession, comes home empty handed - the pawnshop was closed. But the fourth occupant, Schaunard, a musician, has had better luck. He talks, but no one listens to him - the groceries they have brought home with them promise a merry celebration. But Schaunard has other ideas - they ought rather to be eating out on Christmas Eve. But another obstacle still has to be overcome: their landlord knocks at the door demanding the rent. A glass of wine and convivial conversation, and he falls into the artists' trap: with a wink he tells them of his love affair, reason enough for the four friends to show him the door to with a display of moral indignation.
Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article whilst the others go on ahead to the Café Momus. There is a knock at the door: the young woman standing outside wishes to relight her candle, which has gone out. She collapses in a fit of coughing. Grateful for the help she has received, she makes as if leave again. However, not quite by chance, she has lost her key: the drafts blows out all the candles. In the darkness, their hands touch. Her name is Mimì, she tells him, and she embroiders flowers... Outside Rodolfo's friends are calling him. Somehow Christmas Eve has lost its gloom.
The Quartier Latin: The student quarter of Paris presents a colourful picture, with crowds of people swarming in the streets. Rodolfo buys a bonnet for Mimì and invites her to the Café Momus, where he introduces her to his friends, relishing their admiration. Only Marcel's trouble and strife has a name: Musetta. Escorted by a wealthy old admirer, she appears to have every intention of pulling out all the stops in the art of seduction. Marcel cannot cope with such a public display of affection, and an old flame is rekindled in his heart.
The Barrière d'Enfer: A gloomy February morning at the turnpike which separates the Parisian suburbs from the inner city. Labourers, carters and dairywomen are allowed through the turnpike, past the tavern bearing a half-finished sign painted by Marcel. Musette's voice seems to come wafting on the wind. It is bitterly cold.
Mimì has had a quarrel with Rodolfo and wants Marcel to intercede. Rodolfo seems to be avoiding her, and she does not know why. But even Marcel does not realize the real reason, which Rodolfo now reveals to him. Mimì is mortally ill and only has a short time to live; he cannot bear to see her suffering. But worse is yet to come for him: Mimì has overheard her death sentence: a fit of coughing reveals her presence. Rodolfo's love enables him to achieve the seemingly impossible, lessening Mimì's despair and bringing peace to her tormented heart. A strange contrast is to be seen in Marcel and Musetta, whose love seems to thrive on discord.
In the garret: Three or four months have passed, and Marcel and Rodolfo have lost their loved ones. Whilst they sit at work, they wonder where Musette and Mimì may be now? Will it ever be possible to relive the carefree days of yesterday?
This almost seems possible: their mood improves as soon as Schaunard and Colline arrive with few morsels of food. The friends try to revive their previous joviality, play acting, dancing, duelling... Musetta enters with Mimì on her arm. Poor Mimì is haggard and pale. Everyone gathers round her; gratefully she recognizes her old friends. Musette and Marcel are reunited at the sight of her. Musetta sells her earrings in order to fulfil their patient's last wish: a muff. And Colline, a philosopher with a heart, pawns his old coat. Rodolfo stays behind with the dying Mimì; they are left alone with their memories.
The friends return with their gifts, a final pleasure for Mimì. Peacefully she falls into eternal sleep.