The action takes place in contemporary London.
Marcello, an artist, and Rodolfo, a writer, are trying to keep warm by burning Rodolfo’s play. Their friends arrive: Colline, an aspiring filmmaker, and Schaunard, a musician, who brings food, drink and money. He proposes that they go out to celebrate. Just as they are about to leave, Benoît, an Alexandra Palace security guard, arrives demanding the money that they owe him for staying on site. They manage to avoid paying and set off, leaving Rodolfo behind to finish his writing.
Rodolfo’s neighbour, Mimì, arrives asking for a light for her candle. Rodolfo offers her a drink and as the two search for Mimì’s lost key, they immediately realise they have fallen for each other and together set off to join the others.
As the festival opens people are celebrating, shopping, eating and drinking. Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his friends. Marcello loses his temper when his former lover, Musetta, arrives with Alcindoro, her new boyfriend. She puts on an outrageous performance and sends Alcindoro away to buy her a new pair of shoes. Meanwhile, Musetta and Marcello rekindle their passionate relationship. By the time Alcindoro returns, Musetta has spent his money and run off with Marcello and the bohemians behind a dancing procession.
Mimì confronts the reality of her illness. She asks Marcello to speak to Rodolfo for her, claiming his jealousy has made their life together impossible. She overhears Rodolfo and Marcello talking about her: Rodolfo says that she is so ill that her only chance of recovery is if they separate. Marcello and Musetta break up while Rodolfo and Mimì confront the necessity of separation.
Marcello and Rodolfo reflect on their absent lovers. Schaunard and Colline bring some meagre food and the four friends try to cheer themselves up with some dancing. They are interrupted when Musetta bursts in to say that Mimì is dying and wants to be with Rodolfo. The friends do what they can, but it is too late to save her.