Todor Vlaev (right) is trying to impress ladies in "Love & Engineering." Photo Credit: Peter Flinckenberg

Todor Vlaev (right) is trying to impress ladies in “Love & Engineering.” Photo Credit: Peter Flinckenberg

A man is on a blind date in a Finnish harbor-side café, and he can’t stop fidgeting with his coffee cup. His face is contorted in a cross between a smile and a cringe; the woman sitting across from him — dark-haired, slender — turns politely to look outside the window, which glitters from the sun. The silence between them hangs like a ghost in the air.

“My uncle started to show me programming when I was seven,” he finally says. “I think I also really like PC gaming. That’s one thing also. Do you like to play any games? …You don’t know games like Mass Effect?”

She says no. He tries to talk to her about chess, then heavy metal. Finding no common ground, he finally suggests that they just watch the seagulls, whose cooing provides some solace to the moment.

Somewhere nearby, a Bulgarian-born, Finland-based 3D engineer named Atanas Boev is listening to and transcribing their conversation. He is marking down observations like “she is stressed” and “should not bring up previous relationships.” Later, he will present the data gathered from the interaction on a white poster board, his conclusions drawn up in charts and algorithms.

This is the conception behind the new documentary film Love & Engineering, an inquisitive and open-minded exploration of the single life of engineers living in Finland by filmmaker Tonislav Hristov. The film ponders love and the act of pondering. It chronicles failed romance and frustration, the long reach for answers when there seems to be none. It both champions and challenges a methodical approach toward love. But before it’s anything else, the 81-minute film is a poignant underdog story.

A group of engineers, all successful at their jobs and unsuccessful at dating, have banded together to solve the problem of love. If they can figure out the most complex equations and devise the most creative solutions, they say, why can’t they do the same with romance?

You can’t help but root for them, even if they are most likely propelled by naivety. Markus, who loves Mass Effect and heavy metal, is shy around women, as are all of the others. They are brilliant mathematicians but clumsy in social and emotional situations. They go to night clubs and end up in a corner playing PC games. Because what else would timid men do? They try so hard but get rejected so easily.

Atanas is their messiah. He has a wife and a child, and proclaims that he can help his friends find the ultimate algorithm that, when properly applied, will yield the perfect mate. And so the engineers begin to study what works and what doesn’t on first dates, what gestures and phrases to use to impress a girl. They record the brain pulses of women hearing a joke, whiffing the natural scent of a man. The answer to love is a precise combination of smell, speech, setting and social grace, and all they need to do is find it.

Yet the film is less concerned with answers than with the process of searching for them. One female researcher, acting as a consultant, tells them that women shouldn’t be thought of as formulas. But the engineers are great at formulas, better at them than anyone else. So they use it as a springboard for more visceral encounters with women. They want to use their strengths in the search for happiness, and the effort is earnest. We cry when one woman calls and cancels a second date, and leap for joy when one lucky engineer out of the group finally makes a connection — and even if he doesn’t end up in a relationship, at least he got a glimpse at the possibility. But most of the engineers are unsuccessful, and it’s probably because of their approach to women. In these stories, Hristov explores a fascinating question: what happens when you use math and formulas to try to explain the inherently illogical, inexplicable phenomenon of human attraction? Are some things better left as a mystery?

This is the fourth documentary film by Hristov, a Bulgarian engineer-turned-filmmaker, who had documented his own search for love in 2011’s Rules of Single Life. Love & Engineering, a sequel-of-sorts to that film, debuted at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where Hristov took time after screenings to talk to GALO about finding love scientifically, the limits of that approach and what advice he’d give to other shy men looking for love.

GALO: Your first feature film, Rules of Single Life, dealt with many similar themes of being single and finding love. How did you decide to explore the scientific side of that search?

Tonislav Hristov: I was traveling when a friend of mine, Atanas, who I haven’t seen for a few years, started talking with me. He told me about being engaged to a girl, but they broke up. And he just started working. Later, when he was 32, 33, he realized he had been single for three years. He knew that there needs to be a new generation, for practical reasons. He started wondering how this would happen again, this idea of finding love and moving through life. He told me that I should hear him out about making a film. He started reading books about how a woman’s brain works, and how you should approach her and how you should behave.

One year later, he found a huge algorithm. If you’re chatting with her, what should you say — he had his own approach. He was dating and he had a semifinalist. And she became a perfect matching member. Two months later, he was married, and now he has a child. I was, of course, very intrigued. I liked this subject of dealing with romance. It’s not so easy to figure out. I liked how he said it, “Break every woman’s firewall.” So we decided to work together.

Although it’s not in the film, we have a theory of three mathematical equations for how, what, where, in which way — but there was no time to explain the whole thing. So we focused on a more romantic documentary structure.

GALO: So Atanas, an engineer in a successful marriage, tells a group of single engineers that he will find an algorithm for dating women. What was the equation they ultimately came up with?

TH: It was a matrix of chemistry with numbers matching. There was another professor who talked about how that chemistry worked, which is nothing new, but we focused on a documentary with a dramatic arc for a film. One of the guys was going on about the algorithm. At the end, it didn’t get into the film.