Claude Lacombe is the French scientist tasked by the UN to lead the investigative team that looks to discover the truth about the strange phenomena witnessed around the world.
Chances are you think you've got this character figured out. He wears a white lab coat, sports disheveled hair, and explains crazy theories with those shifty, mad eyes and is likely played by Woody Harrelson or Brent Spiner. Right?
This ain't no Roland Emmerich flick here, people. Spielberg takes this sci-fi stock character and classes it up by getting legendary and charming French director François Truffaut (sigh) to play him as a scientific leader with restraint, benevolence, deep intelligence, and compassion. We're fans, as you can tell.
If Roy Neary is the reckless, childlike dad, then Lacombe is everyone's perfect father figure. He's a natural leader, but treats everyone with respect. He's strong but gentle; he's wicked smart; he's totally fair and open-minded; he listens. He's a very reassuring guy to have around. His vibe is that he'll take good care of us, that he's in control; and he does it in a non-authoritarian way, completely unconcerned about maintaining some kind of bogus authority-figure image.
Lacombe tries to deeply understand Roy's experience. At the end of the film, he sees the longing in Roy's eyes to know more. Like a dad who nods kindly and keeps quiet when you tell him you want to major in Puppetry Studies, Lacombe accepts Roy where he's at and helps him reach his goals.
Inquiring Minds Want to Know
Lacombe personifies natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. He wants to understand the UFO phenomena that he's been encountering around the globe. He isn't motivated by a personal encounter with a UFO; he isn't looking for a Nobel Prize; nor was his sister abducted as part of a massive conspiracy, Fox Mulder style. So why does he search for the truth? Because he's a scientist and it's his job to figure out how the universe works. He has no ulterior motives beyond that.
Discovering the truth, and only that, is what drives Lacombe. He's got obstacles to overcome, because the military wants to hide the truth about Devil's Tower.
WALSH: You brought in twelve people to the decontamination camp instead of the evacuation center where they belong. I'd like to know why.
LACOMBE (translated): Because this means something. These people have come from all over their country to a place they have been told will endanger their lives. Why?
WALSH: Because somebody could be trying to subvert this whole operation by sending in fanatics and cultists and Christ knows what all.
LACOMBE (translated): (Showing sketches drawn of Devils Tower by all the captives.) This is a small group of people who have shared a vision in common. Look. (He pulls up the shade to reveal the Tower in the window.) It's still a mystery to me why they are here. Even they do not know why.
Lacombe's acting against strict orders by bringing Roy and the others into the decontamination camp. But he knows that interviewing Roy will give him valuable information about the alien encounter, so he takes the risk. When Major Walsh orders Roy, Jillian, and Larry to be conked out with E-Z-Four before they reach the landing site, Lacombe warns him:
LACOMBE (translated): We didn't choose this place! We didn't choose these people! They were invited! They belong here more than we. […] (in English). Listen to me, Major Walsh. It is an event sociologique!
Lacombe possesses the detached scientific attitude, but he's not blinded by politics, fear, or skepticism. He's a man of principles. He respects the invitees even though he doesn't know why they were invited.
Eyes on the Skies
For much of the film, Lacombe is the grownup in the room—staying calm, using his authority without his ego getting in the way, and actually listening to people. But he also shares some of those childlike traits that Spielberg endows his heroes with. He's open-minded and imbued with a natural curiosity and wonder.
Unlike some other adult characters, he doesn't shut out possibilities because he finds them ridiculous (like Ronnie) or ignore what he can't understand because he'd rather not deal with it (the airline pilots). Instead, he accepts what his investigations present to him.
For example, when the Indians tell him about the five-tonal phrase from the sky, he doesn't scoff and assume they must be suffering from mass delusions. He gets his research team to transmit the signal into the sky and sees what happens. He meets people from all over the world with the same stories and sunburns. He sees scores of drawings and paintings of Devils Tower. He recognizes the significance of all this and doesn't try to explain it away.
This natural sense of wonder, combined with his scientific POV, allows him to successfully orchestrate the climactic encounter with the mother ship. Like Barry, he's not afraid. He watches the skies with anticipation; he greets the ETs with a welcoming, quiet joy. He's totally in the moment.
After Roy enters the mother ship, Lacombe encounters an alien up close and personal himself. It's a masterful acting job. His face reflects amazement and searching—what is a human to do at a moment like this? How do you communicate? How do you signal understanding and goodwill—hug?
Lacombe senses what to do. He teaches the alien the hand signals for the five-tone phrase, which the creature copies. The two share a penetrating look and a smile of friendship before the alien returns to the ship.
This is where Lacombe's story stops. He's gone as far as his investigation will take him, and while he knows there's more knowledge to be had, he can't continue on the journey. Instead, Roy will take his place and continue searching for an even greater truth. That's why Lacombe's last words to Roy are, "Monsieur Neary, I envy you." Personally, we envy anyone who can get that close to François Truffaut.