France, the 1940s. A square in Amiens. Edmondo, a songwriter, and his student companions flirt with some factory girls. His friend, des Grieux, also a student, stays apart from them. A coach arrives, bringing Geronte, a tax collector, and Lescaut, a soldier, who is accompanying his younger sister, Manon. Des Grieux falls in love with her at first sight, finds out that her father is sending her to a convent, and makes plans to prevent this from happening. But Geronte, with Lescaut’s connivance, intends to abduct Manon. Edmondo overhears his plans and warns des Grieux, who escapes with Manon to Paris. Lescaut consoles Geronte by telling him that Manon will not stay long with a student and that he will bring her back to him.
A house in Paris. Manon has left des Grieux and is living a life of luxury with Geronte. She’s bored and her brother promises to arrange for des Grieux to visit her. Some singers serenade Manon with a madrigal written by Geronte. Then she dances and sings for him and his friends. When they leave she tells Geronte that she will follow shortly, but des Grieux appears and Manon starts to seduce him. Geronte interrupts their lovemaking, chillingly threatens the two of them, and leaves, telling them he will return soon. Lescaut runs in, warning the lovers that Geronte is going to get Manon arrested and that she must escape. She delays, trying to collect her jewelry, but is arrested before she can escape.
Imprisonment: The journey to Le Havre. The thoughts of des Grieux.
Outside a prison in Le Havre by the harbor. Dawn. Des Grieux waits outside the prison where Manon is held. Lescaut bribes a sentry to allow his sister to spend time with des Grieux, while he organizes a group to enable her escape. The effort fails, a shot is fired. Townspeople run in. The soldiers restore order and the captain of the ship processes Manon and the other prisoners—mostly prostitutes—before they are deported. In desperation des Grieux grabs Lecsaut’s weapon and threatens the captain, who faces him down. Des Grieux pleads with the captain to be allowed to sail with them as one of the crew.
A desert. Des Grieux and Manon are on the run. They are at the end of their strength, collapsing from thirst and exhaustion. Des Grieux leaves Manon, searching for water. When he returns, he finds her dying. In her last breath she says she loves him.