The furnishings of a luxurious apartment are being examined by an auctioneer after the death of the owner. As he estimates their worth and prospective bidders inspect various items, Nanina, a loyal servant girl, bids the place farewell. Among those inspecting the items is Monsieur Duval, whose son Armand rushes in frantically. Armand appears on the verge of collapse as he looks around the familiar rooms and realizes what is happening. As Monsieur Duval comforts him, Armand tells his father his story:
Armand’s memories carry him back to the Théâtre de Variétés , to a performance of the ballet Manon Lescaut, the famous story of a courtesan torn between love and her desire for luxury. In the audience is Marguerite Gauthier, herself one of Paris’ most beautiful courtesans; Armand is introduced to Marguerite at the ballet. He has previously admired her from afar, but has never before had the opportunity to make her acquaintance. He follows the performance with heightened interest, detecting similarities between himself and des Grieux, Manon’s faithful lover, whose sorrowful fate Armand is briefly afraid of sharing. Marguerite also observes the performance closely; although she feels a bond with the heroine, she refuses to see Manon as a mirror image of herself,
After the performance, Marguerite invites Armand’s friend Gaston and the courtesan Prudence to her apartment, along with Marguerite’s escort Count N., whom she finds wearisome. Armand comes along as well, and Marguerite uses him to tease the young Count. Count N. leaves in a fit of jealousy. Marguerite, who is suffering from consumption, begins coughing, and retires to another room alone. Armand follows her and offers help; overwhelmed by her presence, he confesses his love. Marguerite is sceptical and at first resists, then is won over.
Nonetheless, Marguerite continues to lead her usual live, hastening from one ball to another, from one admirer to the next, from the old Duke to the young Count. Armand waits for her, even following her to the country, where the Duke has arranged an idyllic house for Marguerite to recover her health.
Even in the country, Marguerite continues her extravagant life at the Duke’s expense. When the inevitable confrontation between Armand and the Duke occurs, Marguerite publicly acknowledges Armand as her lover, deciding against wealth and security. Outraged, the Duke departs the gathering, leaving Marguerite and Armand alone to begin their new life together.
The thought of this happiness, now forever lost, causes Armand to lose his composure again. His father is deeply shaken, and recalls his part in the story:
Upon learning of his son’s living arrangements, Monsieur Duval seeks out Marguerite in the country when Armand is away. He demands that Marguerite leave his son, for the good of the family name and for the sake of Armand’s future. With great reluctance, Marguerite agrees to this sacrifice. She returns to Paris and plunges desperately back into her former lifestyle.
Upon Armand’s return to the country, he finds the house deserted. Nanina brings him a letter from Marguerite, in which she tells him she has left him and returned to her former life in Paris. Disbelieving, Armand hastens there. After walking throughout the night, he arrives at her Paris apartment to find her in the arms of another man.
Some time later, Marguerite and Armand accidentally meet on the Champs Elysées. Marguerite is there with another beautiful courtesan, Olympia, to whom Armand immediately makes overtures. To have his revenge on the woman who has so deeply hurt him, Armand begins a very public an affair with Olympia.
The now deathly ill Marguerite seeks out Armand and begs him not to hurt her so needlessly. Despite their hurt, the two are briefly reunited. But the nightmarish vision of Manon plagues Marguerite in her sleep and she awakens with a renewed determination to keep her promise to Monsieur Duval. In despair, Marguerite again leaves Armand.
At a grand ball shortly thereafter, Armand publicly offends Marguerite by handing her money as payment for past services. Marguerite collapses.
Armand has reached the end of his story. His father, who has listened attentively, leaves, deeply moved. Nanina returns and gives Marguerite’s diary to Armand. He begins to read, learning of Marguerite’s painful end and her abiding love for him:
On Marguerite’s last visit to the Théâtre de Variétés, the performance is once again Manon Lescaut. Marguerite see the last act: impoverished and exiled to America, Manon is exhausted by her flight. She dies in the arms of her faithful lover des Grieux, who has followed her into exile. Marguerite leaves the theatre sick and in despair. The ballet characters force themselves into her feverish dreams and blend with her own hopes and memories. Deserted by her former friends and longing to see Armand once again, Marguerite confides her fears and longings to her diary, which she then passes on to Nanina for Armand.
Alone and impoverished, Marguerite dies.