Christmas 1877. Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, turns 40. This is the average life expectancy of a woman in the late 19th century. Elisabeth is now officially an old woman.

As Empress, her duties are purely ceremonial. She lives imprisoned in courtly ritual, her duties, and the expectations placed upon her. But it is her own larger-than-life image, which she encounters everywhere, that wields the greatest control over her. Paintings and statues show an elegant, beautiful and graceful woman with the rosy complexion of the Bavarian maiden she once was. Whatever she wears is fashion. Her unnaturally narrow waist is a modern beauty ideal, at a time when a voluptuous figure is still considered a status symbol. In the late 19th century, Elisabeth is a role model, idolised and criticised in equal measure, who always has to live up to the demands of the nobility and the common folk.

Elisabeth knows that her time is running out. At the age of forty, she will not be able to remain a symbol of beauty for long. She works doggedly at her gymnastics and eats almost nothing to remain slim; she endures daily weighing, measurement, lacing, hairdressing and beauty creams, and spends her nights slathered in raw meat, supposed to keep her skin young. But what else does she have left, if people no longer worship her, but merely respect her? What will her raison d’être be?