Marie St. Clair and her beau, aspiring artist Jean Millet, plan to leave their small French village for Paris, where they will marry. On the night before their scheduled departure, Marie climbs down from her second-floor bedroom for a rendezvous with Jean. Her stepfather sees them strolling down a lane and locks her out of the house. When the couple returns, Jean furiously knocks on the front door and reminds the older man that he's locked out his daughter. The stepfather dismisses Jean's complaint and tells Marie, "Perhaps (Jean) will give you a bed for the night."
Jean does invite Marie to his home, but he makes it clear that he lives with his parents and his mother will fix a bed for Marie. It turns out that Jean's parents are not thrilled with their son's romance with Marie, either. Marie goes to the train station, with Jean promising to follow her. But Jean's father has died while sitting in his chair in front of the fireplace, and when Jean telephones Marie at the station to tell her he can't go with her to Paris, she gets on the train and makes the trip alone.
In Paris, Marie enjoys a life of luxury as the mistress of wealthy businessman Pierre Revel. One night when Marie is alone in the apartment Revel has provided for her, a friend calls and invites her to a raucous party in the Latin Quarter. The friend gives Marie the address, but admits that she can't remember whether the apartment is in the building on the right or the left. Marie, arriving by taxi, enters the wrong building and is surprised to be greeted by Jean Millet. Marie tells Jean she would like for him to paint her portrait and gives him a card with her address.
Jean calls on Marie at her apartment to begin the painting, and Marie notices he is wearing a black armband. She asks why he is in mourning, and Jean tells her his father has died. Marie asks when and Jean replies, "The night you left."
Marie and Jean revive their romance, and Marie begins to distance herself from Pierre Revel. Pierre knows about Jean but also realizes that Marie has become fond of the luxuries she enjoys as his mistress.
Jean finishes Marie's portrait, but instead of painting her wearing the elegant outfit she chose for the sitting, he outfits her in the simple dress she wore on the night she left for Paris.
Jean proposes to Marie. Marie tells Pierre she'll be leaving soon, but Pierre isn't so sure.
Jean's mother, with whom he shares the simple Paris apartment, argues with him about marrying Marie. Jean starts to leave in anger but, after opening the door, leaves the door ajar as he goes to apologize to his mother. He tells his mother the proposal was spur-of-the-moment and not serious. Marie happens to arrive unexpectedly outside Jean's apartment at that moment. A chastened Marie returns to Pierre Revel.
Jean fails to convince Marie he didn't mean what she overheard him say to his mother in an attempt to appease the older woman. One night Jean slips a gun into his coat pocket and goes to the exclusive restaurant where Marie and Pierre are dining. Jean asks the maitre d' to give Marie a note asking her to meet him one last time. Pierre sees the note and invites Jean to join them. Jean and Pierre get into a scuffle and Jean is ejected from the dining room. Jean stands by the fountain in the restaurant's foyer, pulls out the gun and fatally shoots himself.
The police carry Jean's body to his apartment. Jean's mother retrieves the gun and goes to Marie's apartment. Marie's maid tells her that Marie has gone to her son's studio. Jean's mother returns to the apartment and finds Marie kneeling by Jean's body and sobbing.
Jean's mother is touched by Marie's display of grief. The two women reconcile and return to the French countryside, where they open a home for orphans in a country cottage.
One morning Marie and one of the girls in her care walk down the lane to get a pail of milk. Marie and the girl meet a group of sharecroppers with a horse-drawn wagon, who offer them a ride back in the wagon. At the same time, Pierre Revel and another gentleman are riding through the French countryside in a chauffeur-driven automobile. Pierre's companion asks him, "What ever happened to that Marie St. Clair?" Pierre replies that he doesn't know. Pierre's automobile and the horse-drawn wagon then pass each other, heading in opposite directions.
Edna Purviance plays the lead as Marie St. Clair. Chaplin had several reasons for producing this film, and one these reasons was to help Purviance gain recognition as an actress without Chaplin at her side. Another was because he wanted to try staying behind the camera. Despite this attempt, Edna Purviance was never able to achieve the level of success that she had in films with Chaplin's Tramp at her side. However, the film did help Adolphe Menjou gain some recognition.
The film was largely inspired by Chaplin's brief 1922 romance with Peggy Hopkins Joyce, whose stories of her romantic adventures in Europe provided the framework of the screenplay.
Critical response to the film was very positive, and it is credited with influencing later filmmakers. In particular, the film's characters and their motivations had a complexity that was new to cinema. Some consider it to be the first true Chaplin feature, since it is the first feature done under the company he co-founded United Artists.
The film's box office failure was painful for Chaplin, and after its initial release it was not seen by the public for over fifty years. Chaplin reissued the edited film with a new musical score in 1976, a year before his death. In fact, the score he composed is credited as being the final completed work of his 75 year career.